China — For the first time in modern history, China holds the title of ‘world’s largest economy.’ Aside the industrial boom, the Chinese population rose in similar proportion. With the vast fossil fueled energy infrastructure that fostered China’s economic success came inimical effects to the environment and population — problems China look to address through energy reform.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Chinese have formed the hub of the global manufacturing industry. China’s economic success is based on the exportation of manufactured goods, where production relies enormously on domestic energy output and global transportation networks.
Coal-powered plants dominate China’s commercial energy infrastructure. U.S. government officials project that “China will add yet another U.S. worth of coal plants over the next 10 years, or the equivalent of a new 600-megawatt plant every 10 days for 10 years.”
Coal’s ill effects have defaced the Chinese landscape and led to unprecedented levels of pollution. In 2015 the World Health Organization reported PM2.5 readings (tiny poisonous particles used to measure air pollution density) in Beijing at 2300 percent above safe levels.
President Xi Jingping and the Communist Party realize the urgency to address the domestic issue in order to relieve their smog-choked people. The 2014-2020 Action Plan (for Upgrading and Transforming Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction in Coal Powered Industry) looks to tackle harmful emissions in the near-term.
The Plan not only calls for a reduction of coal consumption but also stipulates an increase of non-fossil sources, including renewables, from 15 percent of Chinese energy production in 2015 to 20 percent by 2030.
China’s immediate designs to improve domestic health by reducing coal consumption cleaves international relations — notably with the U.S. Asian-Pacific alliances. The strength of the Communist Party in the P.R.C. relies on sustained economic growth. Growth that depends on an enormous production capacity to manufacture goods as well as the transportation networks to enable global trade.
President Xi Jingping’s actions of late in the South China Sea place Chinese and American armed forces in precariously close proximity, all because China is seeking to gain influence over maritime shipping lanes — the highways of global commerce.
According to the U.S. State Department “energy is at the nexus of national security, economic prosperity, and the environment,” and threats to U.S. strategic interests unambiguously spring from current Chinese energy policies involving fossil fuels.
The fuel that produces the continued economic growth in China — the type and acquisition method — depend heavily on foreign fuel sources. China’s renewable energy revolution won’t happen overnight, which is really the crux of the problem. A reluctant dependence on foreign fuel sources drives the Chinese economy, so production must continue to increase pace.
But the Chinese are showing signs of addressing ever-increasing levels of pollution through alternative energy sources. ironically, not all actually help address social and health issues.
In 2003 the Chinese opened the largest hydro power plant in the world, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. While hydro-generated electricity significantly reduces harmful emissions, the technology has unintended noxious effects on the population. International Rivers calls the Three Gorges Dam a “model for disaster.”
Aside from displacing nearly 1.5 million people during construction, “the submergence of hundreds of factories, mines and waste dumps, and the presence of massive industrial centers upstream are creating a festering bog of effluent, silt, industrial pollutants and rubbish in the reservoir.”
Instead of hydro solutions, the hopes for renewable energy in China lies with solar power. Solar not only marries with President Xi’s pledge to stop CO2 emission from increasing by 2030, the renewable technology neither engenders health concerns nor an equal potential to dislocate the populace.
“China surpassed Germany as the largest solar power generator worldwide last year,” according to Reuters. The China Photovoltaic Industry Association (C.P.I.A.) recently published statements and data claiming “experimental roof-top projects and charitable installations in impoverished areas.”
The awareness group Go Green argues ‘why solar?’ First it cuts down on electricity bill (cost of solar), it’s renewable, environmentally friendly and minimal maintenance. For China the environmental wounds demand alternatives to fossil fuels, and even to other energy sources that produce harmful side effects. As a result, solar seems to be the logical investment.
The capacity for renewable energy continues to grow in China. Reuters also cites evidence from a National Statistics Bureau report suggesting “China’s solar power output increased 31.3 percent from a year ago.” The Chinese are beginning to invest long-term.
In a keynote speech at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, State Secretary John Kerry highlighted a key shortfall in solar technology: “something we haven’t discovered yet –the breakthrough on battery storage.”
China’s fossil fuel infrastructure currently accounts for 25 percent of national electricity generation. U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that alternative forms will account for 55 percent by 2040. Without storage capacity, the Chinese simply cannot capitalize on the humanitarian benefits of solar power.
With a battery storage breakthrough, solar power may supplant the fossil fuel infrastructure on the global market. China’s renewable energy revolution will lead to improved water quality, reduced air toxicity and reconstituted soil conditions — thus a healthier solar-powered economy and population.
– Tim Devine