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How Green Is China? The Coal, Hard Truth

Armond Cohen, The Breakthrough Institute

Recent reports claim that China is the “new global powerhouse for renewable energy.” The numbers, however, do not square with this rosy picture.


The new year brought some deserved celebration of the advance of renewable energy in China, as the government announced nearly 8 gigawatts of wind power additions and 3.6 gigawatts of new solar installed during 2013. But as I’ve previously pointed out, it is important to keep this laudable progress in perspective compared to the still staggeringly large annual increase in new China coal power capacity.

Not everyone did so. In a January 4 article entitled “China Roars Ahead with Renewables,” for example, The Ecologist magazine claimed: “Reports of China opening a huge new coal fired power station every week belie the reality – China is the new global powerhouse for renewable energy…It means that the growth of its electric power system – that underpins the entire modernization and industrialization of the country – is now being powered more by renewables than by fossil fuels.” The report concluded, “These results reveal just how strongly China is swinging behind renewables as its primary energy resource…”

Unfortunately, this rosy picture is not justified by the numbers. Once again, in 2013, coal was the big winner. As the graph below shows, when adjusted for capacity factor (the amount of energy each gigawatt of capacity puts out in a year), it’s clear that new fossil energy output in China, most of it coal, exceeded new wind energy by six times and solar by 27 times:

New Electric Production Capability Added in China During 2013
(Terawatt Hours)

Source:  CATF from China National Energy Administration website for GW, accessed January 2014. Assumed capacity factors: fossil (58% per IEA WEO 2013); hydro (34% per IEA WEO 2013); wind (33%); solar (15%).

Similarly exaggerated is the article’s claim that this trend “will have a dramatic impact on China’s carbon emissions, slowing their growth and hastening the year when they will actually start falling.” Given the relative youth of China’s coal plants – the vast majority of them have been built since 1990 – they are unlikely to be bulldozed anytime soon. If their carbon is not abated, they will be emitting for another half century, with a carbon overhang of centuries.

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