China, Despite Clean Energy Progress, Still A Coal Lover

This post was written by Armond Cohen, Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force.

The new year brought some deserved celebration of the advance of renewable energy in China, as the government announced nearly 8 gigawatts of wind power additions and 3.6 gigawatts of new solar installed during 2013. But as I’ve previously pointed out, it is important to keep this laudable progress in perspective compared to the still staggeringly large annual increase in new China coal power capacity.

Not everyone did so. In a January 4 article entitled “China Roars Ahead with Renewables,” for example, The Ecologist magazine claimed: “Reports of China opening a huge new coal fired power station every week belie the reality – China is the new global powerhouse for renewable energy…It means that the growth of its electric power system – that underpins the entire modernization and industrialization of the country – is now being powered more by renewables than by fossil fuels.” The report concluded, “These results reveal just how strongly China is swinging behind renewables as its primary energy resource…”

Unfortunately, this rosy picture is not justified by the numbers. Once again, in 2013, coal was the big winner. As the graph below shows, when adjusted for capacity factor (the amount of energy each gigawatt of capacity puts out in a year), it’s clear that new fossil energy output in China, most of it coal, exceeded new wind energy by six times and solar by 27 times:

New Electric Production Capability Added in China During 2013
(Terawatt Hours)

Source:  CATF from China National Energy Administration website for GW, accessed January 2014. Assumed capacity factors: fossil (58% per IEA WEO 2013); hydro (34% per IEA WEO 2013); wind (33%); solar (15%).

Similarly exaggerated is the article’s claim that this trend “will have a dramatic impact on China’s carbon emissions, slowing their growth and hastening the year when they will actually start falling.” Given the relative youth of China’s coal plants – the vast majority of them have been built since 1990 – they are unlikely to be bulldozed anytime soon. If their carbon is not abated, they will be emitting for another half century, with a carbon overhang of centuries.

In case you’re in any doubt about the longevity of this trend, Reuters carried a story three days later entitled “China Approves Massive New Coal Capacity Despite Pollution Fears” that delivered some sobering facts (emphasis added):

China approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity in 2013 – six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 percent of U.S. annual usage . . . The scale of the increase, which only includes major mines, reflects Beijing’s aim to put 860 million tonnes of new coal production capacity into operation over the five years to 2015, more than the entire annual output of India.

As we showed in a previous post, even under the most aggressive renewable development scenarios, roughly two thirds of China’s power in 2030 will come from fossil energy, the vast majority of it coal.

Much as one might wish that wind and solar (and for some, nuclear) were sending Chinese coal into the sunset, the facts suggest otherwise. Until we scale up carbon capture and storage, these ongoing China coal trends will continue to be an unmitigated climate disaster.

breakthrough-instituteEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of The Breakthrough Institute. Author credit goes to Armond Cohen, co-founder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force.

Breakthrough's mission is to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. The Breakthrough Institute is a paradigm-shifting think tank committed to modernizing environmentalism for the 21st century. Our core values are integrity, imagination and audacity.


  • Reply January 28, 2014

    Colin Megson

    11.6 GW of renewables and the ‘environmentalists’ are cheering it to the rafters – are they completely insane?

    Is it possible for a staunch environmentalist to imagine how much more he or she, in supporting the ‘renewables solution’ to climate change, contributes to environmental destruction?

    Per GWh of electricity generated, renewables use 30 x more steel than electricity from nuclear power – that’s 29 more iron ore mines than necessary – and see what just 1 did to Bellary.

    Google – “30 x more steel”

    • Reply January 28, 2014


      Any citation for the 30X more steel?

      That is an interesting claim as steel makes up only a small part of most arrays, the majority being aluminum. Any metal isn’t used up; when the array is changed out in 30-40 years, the metals are easily recycled. In fact, much of the metal in the arrays was already recycled. The same thing can happen in a coal or gas plant but not in a nuclear plant. Those metals are off-limits for a few centuries. In a nuclear plant, the concrete, the plants to make the fuel the rebar, the casks…those are not recycled. Looking at the entire resource base and the end footprint would be more accurate.

      While solar panels are producing electricity, there is no produced waste. In contrast, when burning fossil fuels or mining/milling/processing/concentrating uranium there is a lot of waste. The energy life cycle in those production methods is not good and getting worse as we have already taken the low-hanging fruit.

      It might be wise to consider the entire picture rather than all the steel used.

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