The recently concluded COP27 international climate change summit in Sharm El Sheik offered world leaders, experts, and activists an opportunity to stop and take stock one year after a landmark agreement to “phase down” coal emissions. Already, there is reason for concern: A November 2022 report from the International Energy Agency found that, if nothing is done, emissions from already existing coal assets are enough to tip the world across the 1.5 degrees Celsius increase scientists and world leaders agreed was the threshold for a safe climate under the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2021 Glasgow Compact.
Because China is the world’s largest burner of coal, any discussion of a coal phasedown hinges on whether it can cut its reliance on fossil fuels. Although China has set ambitious targets for cutting emissions over the coming decades, political leaders remain wary that cutting coal power too much, too fast could affect the country’s energy security and economic growth. This summer, an unprecedented heat wave and severe drought put serious strain on China’s power system, as high temperatures drove power demand much higher than planners anticipated, while droughtlike conditions in traditionally water-rich regions like the southwestern province of Sichuan hampered the output of hydroelectric dams, causing significant power outages.
China is not alone in experiencing grid resilience issues due to extreme weather. In Texas, a 2021 winter storm wreaked havoc on gas infrastructure and transmission lines, knocking out power to millions and leading to hundreds of deaths. This summer, several French nuclear power plants had to reduce output as rising temperatures warmed the water used to cool reactors.
The good news is that China can simultaneously enhance its energy security, address recent grid reliability issues, and cut its reliance on coal power. The solution lies in its world-class renewable resources — and a willingness to invest in a modern and more resilient grid. A new study, conducted by myself and my colleagues at the Berkeley Lab, Energy Innovation, and the University of California, Berkeley, found China could more than double the share of carbon-free electricity production to 80% by 2035, while cutting power generation costs without sacrificing reliability. This transition would generate more economic growth, reduce air pollution, dampen the volatility of energy prices, and have significant benefits for the health of the Chinese people.
China is already the world leader in wind and solar development, adding more wind, solar, and offshore wind capacity than any other country in 2021. The potential for expansion is still huge, however. According to a 2020 study by its National Climate Center, China has enough wind and solar potential to supply about 13 times its national electricity needs. That year, installed capacity of solar and wind represented about 1% of the country’s technical potential.
Much of this potential is concentrated in western and northern China, far away from the industrialized coast. But offshore wind presents a particularly exciting new growth area, as China possesses sizeable offshore wind resources. Crucially, these resources — about 2,000 gigawatts worth, by some estimates, or almost twice as much as the power produced by China’s existing coal power plants — are available almost year-round and lie close to the country’s coastal economic powerhouses.
Cutting costs and creating jobs
As wind and solar costs drop, the Berkeley study suggests that there is no cost premium for a rapid clean energy transition. In fact, investing in renewables could drive down electricity costs by about 6% while creating new jobs.
Close to three-quarters of global solar panels and wind turbines are made in China, and the country has the manufacturing and construction capacity to further scale up renewable energy and related grid infrastructure construction. Building a modern and more resilient power grid would require a huge investment, which could provide much-needed economic stimulus to a Chinese economy struggling to emerge from the “zero-COVID” policy of the past three years. Our analysis suggests that accelerated solar and wind development could create 1.2 million jobs while cutting premature deaths due to air pollution by 55%. Similarly, the IEA has found that the transition to a net zero energy system could result in global GDP being 4% higher by 2030, relative to current trends.
Coal plays a vital role in China’s power mix. It helps to meet peak demand when wind and solar are not sufficient. Existing coal plants will remain key to ensuring grid reliability as China’s low-cost renewable transition accelerates, but their operations will change from constant to intermittent generation. Rather than generating power around the clock, coal plants can fill the peaks and valleys of wind and solar generation, complemented by China’s significant hydro and nuclear resources. Because the cost of wind and solar power is already lower than the cost of operating most coal plants, the result is a cleaner, cheaper grid.
The Berkeley study shows that this is possible without sacrificing reliability. We simulated the operation of an 80% carbon-free grid over the past 35 years of weather conditions and found no shortfalls in power. Even with no new coal power plants, coal, hydro, gas, and nuclear facilities, alongside new battery technology, were enough to compensate for solar and wind lulls. As COP27 delegates wrestle with how fast to transition away from fossil fuels, China should focus on doing what it does best: scaling up the deployment of its domestic renewable resources to support its own economic growth and improve air quality. Doing so won’t just clean up China’s power mix, it will position Chinese industries at the forefront of the global clean energy revolution.
This article is co-authored by Michael O’Boyle, the director of the electricity program at Energy Innovation.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.