China needs huge expansion of photovoltaic solar, wind power to reach climate goals

China will need to expand its current solar and wind energy capacity by eight- to tenfold to fulfill its 2060 carbon neutrality goals, a University of California-led study has found.

Achieving these aims will also require large-scale construction of transmission lines, as well as more coordinated national-level policies in place of impromptu local decisions, according to the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We know China has a very ambitious pathway to achieve carbon neutrality. We wanted to find out exactly what that entails,” senior author Michael Davidson, a professor of global policy and engineering at the University of California (UC) San Diego, said in a statement.

Because China is currently the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, its policies have significant effects on the global climate change picture and provide learning opportunities to other nations, the researchers noted.

To determine just what it will take for China to achieve its net-zero goals, the UC San Diego team worked with researchers at Beijing’s Tsinghua University to simulate a carbon-neutral power grid for 2060.

Their model zoomed in on power generation resources and transmission line installations, accounting for land parcels as small as 20-30 square kilometers, or 8-12 square miles.

While running the model, the scientists saw that China’s east coast will likely run out of land that can be dedicated to renewable energy sites. After that happens, most solar facilities in the area will need to be smaller rooftop installations, according to the study.

To accomplish the 2060 carbon neutrality goal, China will need to build 2-4 terawatts each of solar and wind capacity by that point, the researchers noted.

As of 2020, China had installed 282 gigawatts of wind and 253 gigawatts of solar power capacity.

Also critical will be a sizable boost in energy storage and in ultrahigh voltage transmission lines — the latter of which will need to double or triple compared with today’s capacity, per the study.

Meanwhile, if current land use laws apply in 2060, about 80 percent of solar and 55 percent of wind capacity will need to be built within 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, of major load centers, the authors noted.

“Land use will become increasingly contentious, an issue which to date has been relatively minor in China due to high-quality resources in areas without major land competition,” they warned.

They therefore urged China’s leaders to promote land policies that support both the deployment of utility-scale renewables and the preservation of agriculture.

The scientists also suggested assessing the implications of shifts in China’s power mix, examining emissions reductions in nonpower sectors and optimizing the joint delivery of electricity and central heating.

“Achieving carbon neutrality in China by 2060 requires a massive transformation of the electricity sector,” the authors stated.

Facilitating that transformation, they concluded, will require the deployment of “a suite of zero- and negative-emissions generating technologies as well as complementary storage and transmission infrastructure.”

by Sharon Udasin