Environmentalists are touting China’s increasing use of renewable power, and there are several lessons we can learn from this. Here are five important lessons and takeaways from China’s growing use of renewable power.
Lesson 1: China’s Progressive Definition of ‘Renewable’. My Forbes.com colleague Nishtha Chugh points out that China plans on meeting 27 percent of its electricity output through renewable energy by 2020. This is possible because China defines its ‘renewable’ power mix as including hydro and nuclear power in addition to wind and solar power. Thanks to an impressive recent expansion of hydro and nuclear power, China currently generates 18 percent of its power through renewable sources. Increasing its renewable power mix from 18 percent to 27 percent during the next four years is an ambitious goal, but it is plausible only through a progressive definition of its renewable energy mix.
Lesson 2: China’s Goal of 80 Percent Renewables by 2050 Is Highly Unlikely. Chugh notes that China hopes to reach 80 percent renewable power by 2050, but a stated goal is a far cry from a likely result. Lin Boqiang, representing the Center of China Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, points out that China is highly unlikely to meet its stated goal. It is easy for today’s politicians to take credit for grandiose goals they know they personally will never have to meet, but tomorrow’s policymakers will respond to market forces, economics, and political realities.
Lesson 3: Wind and Solar Growth Remains Marginal. Claims that China is dramatically increasing its use of wind and solar power can be misleading. China generates only 3 percent of its electricity from wind power and less than 2/10 of 1 percent of its power from solar power. If wind and solar power increase from 2 percent to 3 percent of China’s electricity mix, then it is factually accurate to say China increased its wind and solar power by 50 percent. But going from a total of 2 percent wind and solar power to 3 percent wind and solar power still leaves wind and solar power a marginal player in China’s electricity mix.
Lesson 4: China’s Marginal Growth in Wind and Solar Power is Not Sustainable. Boqiang documents that the recent growth of wind and solar power in China, marginal though it may be, is not sustainable. Much of the growth occurred because China manufactured wind and solar equipment for export to other nations. When the United States and Western Europe cut back on expensive renewable energy programs, China was stuck with excess product. Rather than scrap the wind and solar equipment its subsidized companies had already financed and manufactured, China put much of this excess equipment on its own grid. This is unlikely to continue in the future.
Lesson 5: Rising Living Standards Require Affordable Energy Sources. Even with debilitating air pollution, China will add low- and zero-emissions power only to the extent they facilitate rising living standards. This is why China still generates more than 70 percent of its electricity from coal, and why hydro and nuclear power account for the vast majority of new zero-emissions power production. Environmentalists who advocate low- and zero-emissions power will be much more successful if they identify and support ways to add affordable hydro and nuclear power to the electricity mix in China, India, the United States, and globally.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.