Green energy growth faces gridlock, struggles in China
BEIJING | China’s scramble to curb pollution has won it accolades as the world leader in renewable energy development, yet increasing amounts of that green electricity are going unused as the country struggles to integrate wind and solar power into an outdated and balkanized electricity network dominated by coal.
The problem threatens to slow China’s progress in clearing its air and controlling the greenhouse gas emissions that make it the top contributor to climate change. It also runs counter to a desire by Beijing’s leaders to fill the leadership gap left by President Trump’s move last week to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.
As international energy ministers gather in Beijing this week to promote renewables, China’s difficulty maximizing its green resources underscores uncertainty over how best to transition to cleaner electricity.
“They installed too much too fast,” said Qiao Liming, China director for the Global Wind Energy Council. “A real market should allow electricity to flow between two provinces. That is currently lacking” in China, she said.
Thousands of new wind turbines and solar panels were installed in China’s remote provinces over the past several years as the country’s leaders sought to alleviate choking urban smog without slowing economic expansion. China now has more renewable power capacity than any other nation.
Two nagging problems have dampened that success, however, according to industry representatives and outside observers: China’s sprawling power grid has been unable to handle the influx of new electricity from wind and solar, while some provincial officials have retained a preference for coal.
In western China’s Gansu province, 43 percent of energy from wind went unused in 2016, a phenomenon known in the energy industry as “curtailment.” In the neighboring Xinjiang region, the curtailment figure was 38 percent and in northeast China’s Jilin province it was 30 percent. The nationwide figure, 17 percent, was described by Ms. Qiao’s organization as “shockingly high” after increasing for several years in a row.
The problem has shown some signs of improvement this year, according to the China Electricity Council. Power demand in general increased in the first quarter, giving a boost to renewables after the economy regained momentum from 2016’s slowdown.
However, experts say wasted energy will continue to be a drag on Chinese renewable power potential until the country’s electrical grid is modernized and provincial officials end their preference for coal, which provides almost two-thirds of the country’s energy.
The problem is worst in winter, when many coal plants provide electricity for the power grid and send out excess heat to keep homes and businesses warm.
That’s led provincial officials to keep coal plants running — and to reject available wind-generated electricity — despite pressure from the central government to use more renewables, said Lu Xi, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Environment in Beijing.