Renewable energy could economically provide China the majority of its energy by midcentury, according to a new report.
The "China 2050 High Renewable Energy Penetration Scenario and Roadmap Study" from the China National Renewable Energy Centre models energy trends in China, stipulating a goal of high renewable energy penetration with the constraints of pollution, emissions, technology and economics.
The study found that wind, solar, hydropower, biomass and geothermal energy could produce 60 percent of China’s total energy and generate 85 percent of its electricity in 35 years while maintaining stability on the grid.
Starting on this path would likely make China’s greenhouse gas emissions peak sooner than 2030 under the climate change deal President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping negotiated last year.
Speaking yesterday on a panel presenting this report at the offices of Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., experts said that China — as the world’s most populous country and its largest coal consumer and carbon dioxide emitter — could singlehandedly move the needle on climate change and drive renewable energy markets around the world.
In addition, the push for renewables will be a major economic driver in China, according to Wang Zhongying, director of the China National Renewable Energy Centre.
Jobs and economic benefits
"In the future, our renewable energy will provide 12 million jobs," he said. Though some of these jobs will come at the expense of fossil fuels, Zhongying said the net balance is still positive and that the energy transition is not a zero-sum game. By 2050, the renewables sector will make up 6.2 percent of China’s gross domestic product.
A similar study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2012 also found that high renewable energy penetration is feasible in the United States. In practice, researchers found, wind and solar energy complement each other in terms of power output and can push demand for baseload power down, lowering energy prices below expected values, explained Samuel Baldwin, chief science officer at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.
"Bottom line is, within the U.S. studies, you can do this at the operational level, and the costs are quite reasonable," Baldwin said.
However, even if China bends the curve on greenhouse gases, it will still be a large emitter. By 2050, China will emit 3.4 billion tons of CO2 annually, down from an expected peak of 9 billion tons.
Experiments with financing underway
And some practical challenges remain. Li Junfeng, director-general of the climate change strategy center at China’s National Development and Reform Commission, said one of the major obstacles is policy, particularly around financing. "We need lots of reform," he said, "not only in China, but worldwide … 70 percent to 80 percent of [renewable energy costs] is financing costs."
Throughout China, legislators are experimenting with different policy mechanisms to see which one produces the best results, from pricing carbon to directly subsidizing renewables.
"The Chinese are taking a ‘let all flowers bloom’ approach," said Paul Bledsoe, a former White House climate aide during the Clinton administration and a senior fellow on energy and climate at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who was attending the session.
The question, then, is whether there is political will to push China away from dirty fuel sources. For those living under Beijing’s brown haze, the motivation may come more from the immediate concerns about the air than from looming problems with the climate.
"The air quality crisis has reached such an acute political stage," Bledsoe said, adding that many Chinese government officials are also starting to embrace the economic opportunity behind addressing these concerns.
Once China builds momentum behind renewable energy, prices may drop enough to draw other developing nations to this path. "If China can solve their problem of energy in a sustainable way, then other countries can certainly follow it," Junfeng said.