China's Push for Renewables
Nov. 6, 2015
COP21, a major UN conference on climate change, will open later this month in Paris. Its success will depend partly on China, which has in the past opposed binding CO2 emissions cuts for developing countries. But anticipation is mounting, as China has set its very first emission reduction target.
NHK World's Masashi Yamaguchi visited a remote desert in the country to find out whether that goal is achievable.
Dunhuang is a six-hour flight from Beijing. The location once flourished as a key stop on the Silk Road, an ancient trading route. A drive out of town into the vast desert reveals rows of solar panels. The desert setting makes Dunhuang a prime choice to be the center of China's renewable energy push. Its 40-square kilometer solar plant should have an output of 5,500 megawatts by 2020.
"We're building wind power generation facilities in addition to solar power," a worker at the plant says.
A two-and-a-half hour flight from Dunhuang lies Lanzhou city. Government officials are building it into a massive industrial complex with train lines, expressways and an international airport. They're planning for a good portion of the city's power to come from Dunhuang.
"We're linked with major cities across China and also with countries to the west," a factory manager says. “We'll profit from our strategic location in becoming a key transport hub."
Lanzhou is expected to be a key junction in President Xi Jinping's "New Silk Road," a plan to create an economic belt across the country that connects to Central Asia's natural resources and promising markets. The Dunhuang mega solar farm is designed to meet the power demands of central and coastal areas.
Officials are also pushing construction of wind power-generation facilities. The operator of a site in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region plans to more than double its output of 1,700 megawatts.
China's electrical output from solar and wind power rose sharply between 2005 and 2010. Wind power has now overtaken the country's nuclear output. Chinese authorities recently held a meeting to discuss economic measures for the next five years. They laid out plans to build a clean and low-carbon modern energy system.
The initiative is driven by concerns over pollution, including air and water contamination. Ahead of COP 21, China has pledged by 2030 to cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels. It means Beijing must reduce coal-fired thermal power, which now accounts for 70 percent of the country's energy output.
Chinese authorities plan to support renewable energy manufacturing as a new growth sector. They hope to make it a pillar of the country's export industry.
Premier Li Keqiang said, "China has to cultivate a new economic growth point, in which green and environmentally friendly industries should enjoy big development spaces."
The Chinese government is pushing to promote a renewable energy future, but challenges remain. If the country's economic growth continues at its current pace, experts say its greenhouse gas emissions will still increase. The question for China is whether it can create an energy structure that's good for the environment and for business.
NEWSROOM TOKYO anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya are joined in the studio by Mika Ohbayashi, Director of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation. Ohbayashi will be attending the COP21 conference later this month in Paris.
Beppu: China is making these efforts ahead of COP21. Is it fair to say that serious pollution problems and other domestic issues are pushing the country to go green?
Ohbayashi: Exactly. China has to cope with pollution and make its renewable energy industries competitive internationally. Chinese firms have entered the market in developed countries in Europe and elsewhere. But they're also looking to developing countries in places like Africa that are expanding their vast renewable energy resources. While this move is in China's national interests, it's also a very good thing for the rest of the world if one of the largest emitters of CO2 turns to renewables.
Shibuya: So the Chinese renewable energy sector is growing, but how does it compare to the rest of the world?
Ohbayashi: Last year, China was No.1 in terms of wind power capacity, accounting for 30% of the world total. And with solar power, it was No. 2.
This graph shows the future of renewable energy in China by 2050, as forecast in a recent report by China’s government energy institute. Orange represents solar, light-green is wind, blue is hydro, gray is coal. And the red line shows the percentage of energy from renewable sources. The report predicts the current level of 23% will rise to 53% by 2030 and to 86% by 2050. Meanwhile the percentage of power generated from coal will fall to 6.8%.
Beppu: How does the growth of China's renewables sector affect competition with other countries involved in the industry?
Ohbayashi: Initially, China imported advanced renewable energy technologies from European countries like Denmark and Germany. It is sometimes pointed out that when China enters the market they lower their prices to win contracts. This causes problems for companies and has caused some to go bankrupt. Among the top 10 companies in the wind power market, four are Chinese. As for the solar market, out of the top 10 companies, six are Chinese. It has been pointed out that this has brought about competition.
Shibuya: Renewables are often seen as being expensive. How do they compare to fossil fuels?
Ohbayashi: In fact, the cost of renewables has been falling drastically.
If you look at this chart, the cost of wind power is now pretty much the same as fossil fuels. Solar is still a bit high, but the cost has fallen by almost 80% in last five years. Experts predict that by 2025, it will also be about the same as fossil fuels.
Beppu: Do you have high expectations for the COP21 conference? What results do you think will come of that event in Paris?
Ohbayashi: I think it's fair to say that they will reach some kind of agreement. It won't be easy to have a binding one though. I'm encouraged to see large emitters like the US and China making pledges. I do hope Japan will take leadership as well. I would like to point out that what is important is what comes after the meeting. Some countries are proposing to have a review mechanism. That means there would be a follow-up system on whether the countries implement their pledges. This is very important if we want to be ready to fight global warming.