China on Pace to Become Global Leader in Renewable Energy

Washington, D.C. – China will likely achieve—and may even exceed—its target to obtain 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020, according to a new report released by the Worldwatch Institute. If China’s commitment to diversifying its energy supply and becoming a global leader in renewables manufacturing persists, renewable energy could provide over 30 percent of the nation’s energy by 2050.

That is the major conclusion of Powering China’s Development: The Role of Renewable Energy, written by Beijing-based researcher Eric Martinot, a Worldwatch senior fellow, and Li Junfeng, Vice Chair of China’s Renewable Energy Society in Beijing. “A combination of policy leadership and entrepreneurial savvy is leading to spectacular growth in renewable energy, increasing its share of the market for electricity, heating, and transport fuels,” said Martinot. “China is poised to become a leader in renewables manufacturing, which will have global implications for the future of the technology.”

More than $50 billion was invested in renewable energy worldwide in 2006, and China is expected to invest over $10 billion in new renewables capacity in 2007, second only to Germany. Wind and solar energy are expanding particularly rapidly in China, with production of wind turbines and solar cells both doubling in 2006. China is poised to pass world solar and wind manufacturing leaders in Europe, Japan, and North America in the next three years, and it already dominates the markets for solar hot water and small hydropower.

“Our ingenuity and manufacturing prowess are being harnessed to provide leadership to the world on renewables,” said Li Junfeng. “China’s position provides a strong example for other developing countries, while helping to drive down renewable energy costs to become competitive with fossil fuels for all countries the world over.”

The report discusses China’s advances in wind power, solar photovoltaics (PV), solar heating, biomass power, and biofuels. Impressive gains in these sectors include:

  • Wind power is the fastest growing power-generation technology in China, with existing capacity doubling during 2006 alone. By 2007, China was home to four major Chinese manufacturers of wind turbines, another six foreign subsidiary manufacturers, and more than 40 firms developing prototypes and aspiring to produce turbines commercially.
  • Solar PV production capacity in China jumped from 350 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to over 1,000 MW in 2006, with 1,500 MW expected in 2007. With high-profile initial public stock offerings for several Chinese companies, some valued in the billions of dollars, global attention has been riveted to China’s solar PV industry.
  • Growth in solar hot water systems has been rapid, rising from 35 million square meters of installed capacity in 2000 to 100 million square meters by the end of 2006. China added 20 million square meters of new capacity in 2006 alone. Chinese companies now produce the solar heaters—an increasingly desirable consumer appliance—at costs one-fifth to one-eighth those found in the United States and Europe.
  • Wastes from agricultural facilities in China could yield 80 billion cubic meters of biogas annually, well above the government’s target of 44 billion cubic meters annually by 2020. In 2006, China had about 2 gigawatts (GW) of biomass power generation capacity, mostly from combined heat-and-power (CHP) plants with sugarcane waste as the primary feedstock.
  • Total ethanol production in China in 2006 was about 1 billion liters, compared with global production of 37 billion liters, primarily in the United States and Brazil. Higher corn prices and concern about competition with food supplies led to a moratorium on corn-based ethanol, leaving sorghum, cassava, and sugar cane as the current feedstocks of choice. Prospects for significant ethanol expansion in China rest primarily on the future of cellulose-to-ethanol technology, the viability of which experts expect will be proven within the next 10 years.

With its booming economy and rapidly expanding energy consumption—particularly its use of coal and oil—it is imperative for China to diversify its energy supplies. The country has suffered frequent power shortages due to its breakneck economic development. China’s urban population, which uses nearly three times more electricity and commercial energy per person than rural residents do, increased from 375 million in 1999 to 577 million in 2006. The country’s automobile fleet also continues to balloon, with an estimated 1,000 new cars appearing on Beijing’s streets every day.

Coal now provides 80 percent of China’s electricity, and national electricity demand doubled between 2000 and 2006. As a result, China’s economic development, environment, and public health are severely affected: for example, only 1 percent of urban Chinese breathe air that meets European air quality standards. Coal generation also leads to the build up of toxic metals, such as mercury, in water supplies and on agricultural fields throughout China.

China’s carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise and are expected to exceed total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions shortly, although Chinese per-capita emissions remain about one-sixth those of the United States. Nuclear power provides just 7 GW of China’s electric capacity, and even with the additional plants planned in the next few decades, it is unlikely to provide more than 5 percent of the country’s electricity.

Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin praised China’s growing commitment to renewables: “The combination of ambitious targets supported by strong government policies and entrepreneurial acumen may soon allow China’s renewable energy sector to ’leapfrog’ many developed nations.”