Over the past several decades, China has largely relied on coal to provide energy for its rapidly expanding economy. Coal consumption has grown quickly in recent years, doubling from 2002 to 2008. Although it accounts for a smaller share of electricity production, natural gas consumption has been increasing even more quickly, nearly tripling over the same period. Oil, largely used for transportation, is also on the way up, growing by an average of 7 percent each year.
Going forward, however, the picture may be changing, as China is investing heavily in renewable energy. Wind energy in China has grown nearly 10 times faster than fossil fuel consumption, expanding from less than 500 megawatts of wind power capacity in 2002 to over 25,000 megawatts in 2009.
The exponential growth of China’s wind energy sector is expected to continue, with major projects moving forward including the Wind Base program’s seven mega-complexes wind farm, each with a capacity of 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts. Once built, they will together exceed the entire world’s wind power generating capacity at the start of 2008. These ambitious wind turbines projects are just scratching the surface; a study published in the journal Science calculates that China could generate more than seven times its current electricity consumption from the wind power alone.
But China is not stopping with wind power. Although solar photovoltaics (PV) have thus far remained too costly for widespread deployment in the Chinese market, production for export has skyrocketed. Though its PV production before 2002 was near zero, by 2008 China had become the world’s number one producer. As costs continue to fall, more domestic PV installations are in store, with plans including a 2,000 megawatt project in the Mongolian desert. This facility, scheduled for completion in 2019, is the largest solar PV proposal in the world to date.
Chinese carbon emissions loom large as the world considers its carbon reduction options.
By Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute