Electricity in China

Due to its large population and growing wealth and international importance, the way China gets its energy has considerable relevance for the rest of the world. From a climate change perspective, the story is not a very encouraging one. Firstly, China gets abour 75% of its power from coal. Secondly, its economy is arranged such that the energy use per dollar of GDP is extremely high – about four times more than in the United States, and about eight times more than Britain. Partly, that is the consequence of how electricity in China is kept artificially cheap, with a price per megawatt-hour of just $0.59, compared with $0.89 in the United States and $1.86 in Britain.

Quite possibly, the low energy efficiency of China is partly a consequence of how rich states have exported a great deal of their highly polluting industry to places like China. They can pat themselves on the back for keeping domestic emissions relatively flat, while importing all the carbon-intensive goods they want from places like China. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Steven Davis and Ken Caldiera quantify these flows:

We find that, in 2004, 23% of global CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes CO2, were traded internationally, primarily as exports from China and other emerging markets to consumers in developed countries. In some wealthy countries, including Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France, >30% of consumption-based emissions were imported, with net imports to many Europeans of >4 tons CO2 per person in 2004. Net import of emissions to the United States in the same year was somewhat less: 10.8% of total consumption-based emissions and 2.4 tons CO2 per person.

This map, showing the magnitude of these flows, is rather telling.

Given the importance of having global emissions of greenhouse gases peak soon, then fall rapidly towards zero, the direction China is taking is worrisome:

The use of power derived from coal will continue to grow in absolute terms (although new coal-fired plants are to be more efficient and cleaner), but its share of total Chinese output will fall from 75% to 65%, estimates Credit Suisse’s Mr Chen. Hydropower will expand by more than half, but its share of the total will drop a bit, from 21% to 20%. Wind power will see a big expansion, taking its share from 3% to 7%, as will nuclear, up from 1% to 5%. The rest will come from such niches as solar panels and incinerators.

It is good that China is deploying renewables on such a scale, and promising (though also worrisome) that they are leading the world in construction of nuclear reactors, with 21 on the way. At the same time, China is going to have to accept that ever-rising absolute emissions from coal-fired power stations is not an approach that is compatible with climatic stability. Ultimately, those facilities are going to need to be shut down.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “Electricity in China”

  1. China’s nuclear industry and high-speed trains are world class

    And the state has been crucial in making them so

    One reason for this progress is that China’s nuclear industry has gained experience quickly. In the past 20 years China has built nuclear plants faster than any other country; its nuclear capacity is now 43gw, third only to that of France (63gw) and America (99gw). Unlike in those two countries, though, China’s capacity is growing. And whereas in 1996 just 1% of the value of its first nuclear plants came from domestic firms, that figure is now 85%.

    China’s development of nuclear power and high-speed trains shows that the power of technology does not, as is often assumed, lie primarily in innovation. What matters most about a technology is that it should be both useful and used. And the factors that make it so may be a matter of politics more than ever better widgets.

    For any technology that seems to meet a national need but faces right-of-way issues during its deployment, as high-speed rail does, or concerns about public safety, as nuclear does, there is no greater ally than the Chinese Communist Party. When 1m people in Hong Kong signed a petition against the construction of a nuclear plant nearby, a Chinese minister shut down their complaints by stating that “unscientific objections” would not stop the project.

    Knowing things can be built quickly makes the commitment to really big engineering projects more feasible in China than elsewhere. It is the same in Russia, the other authoritarian power where nuclear plants are still built for domestic use and export. Even with few political risks and lots of fairly skilled cheap labour the upfront capital costs of building nuclear plants are huge; but China’s governments, national and provincial, and state-owned companies had no worries about their balance-sheets.

    Being a one-party state does not blind China to public concerns about safety. When 40 people died in a high-speed-train collision near the city of Wenzhou in 2011, the public was outraged. Passenger numbers fell; work on new lines was paused; safety procedures were scrutinised. There has not been a similar accident since. After the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan that same year, the Chinese government’s position on new plants went from “active” to “conservative”, says Mr Zou of dfhm, and deployment slowed down. That means China will miss the target of 58gw of nuclear-generation capacity it set itself for 2020. But if, as Mr Zou expects, China continues to build up to eight reactors a year, it should meet the lower end of its target of 120gw by 2030.

    Some of these reactors are still of foreign design. Versions of both the ap1000, an American design, and the epr, a French one, have begun operating in China over the past two years. But that underlines China’s edge. It is the only country, including France and America, yet to have successfully built either design. Rather than importing more nuclear technology, Mr Zou and others are looking to export their own.

    Though many Western experts believe that nuclear power has a real, if smallish, role in the energy systems of the future, exporting nuclear plants may never be a huge business. In most places, the zero-carbon electricity they offer will not be as cheap as wind or solar. The Chinese are aware of this, too. Their renewables industry has grown even faster than nuclear power and the two sources are providing the country with broadly similar amounts of power. Again, the story is one of taking a foreign technology, indigenising it and scaling it up massively. Whether it be turbines, reactors, trains or satellite launchers, China has mastered this procedure.

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