China gears up to accelerate energy transition

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On May 31, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and National Energy Administration (NEA) issued a blueprint for the high-quality development of new energy, aiming to accelerate the construction of a clean, low-carbon, safe and efficient energy system in China.

The following day, on June 1, nine government departments, including the NDRC and NEA, jointly released the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) for Renewable Energy Development, outlining major targets for the sector.

Industry analysts believe the issuance of state-level policies conveys a positive signal for the development of the renewable energy industry, which will serve as a crucial means for the country to fulfill its commitment proposed in 2020 to reach a carbon peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060.

The time is now 

According to a report released by the World Meteorological Organization on May 18, greenhouse gas concentrations, rising sea levels, and oceanic acidification, the ongoing decrease in the pH value of the Earth's oceans caused by the uptick in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, all hit new records in 2021. Some glaciers even reached the point of no return.

UN Secretary General António Guterres that same day called for critical actions to jumpstart the world's transition to renewable energy, which he referred to as the "peace project of the 21st century," adding that non-fossil fuels are the "lifeline" to ending climate change.

China has been attaching great importance to the development of said "lifeline."

Back in 2012, the electricity generated from renewable sources in the country still lagged behind that in the United States, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

But in the years since, China has been at the center of global supply and demand for renewable energy, leading it to account for about 40 percent of capacity growth from 2015 to 2020, followed by Europe, the U.S. and India, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

China is expected to remain the industry leader over the next five years, accounting for 43 percent of global renewable energy capacity growth, the IEA said.

"The time is right for China to step up efforts in clean energy development," Han Dong, a researcher with the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute, wrote in an article published on the institute's official social media account on June 6.

The past decade has seen China's rapid progress in the field. The 14th Five-Year Plan highlights "high-quality leapfrog development," noting that China's renewable energy expansion will enter a new phase featuring large-scale, high-proportion (namely in electricity consumption), market-oriented and high-quality growth.

In light of new circumstances and changing requirements, "high-quality leapfrog development" manifests itself in two aspects: To achieve its carbon peaking and neutrality goals, China will consolidate the foundation of energy transition within less than 10 years and make non-fossil fuels the main body of energy consumption; to improve quality and efficiency, the country will continuously promote technological progress, lower costs, enhance competitiveness, phase out subsidies and give a greater role to market forces, speed up key technological innovation, and warrant the security, stability and reliability of the industrial and supply chains, a spokesperson for the NDRC said on June 1.

Han further explained how the 14th Five-Year Plan period got off to a rocky start with the COVID-19 pandemic dealing a huge blow to the world, and the Russia-Ukraine war producing new uncertainties.

But the value of renewable energy remains priceless because China features huge energy demand due to its social and economic development. Consequently, renewables are essential to ensuring the nation's energy security and provide an optimal solution that also considers climate governance and meets its needs. Meanwhile, China is en route to accomplishing its goal of becoming a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful by the mid-21st century and renewable energy will effectively facilitate the construction of new infrastructure, boost economic development and stabilize employment, he added. 

"The plan reflects China's strong determination to dynamically expand its renewable energy," according to a research report by Chinese securities brokerage Ping An Securities. "Solar and wind power, extra-high voltage transmission technology, energy storage and other links of the industry will all benefit from it.

To reach the targets in 2025, the document has included several main tasks, namely building seven major onshore new energy bases primarily located around the Gobi Desert in north and northwest China and five major offshore wind power base clusters. In addition, it encouraged the in-depth integration of renewable energy development with ecological conservation, new-type urbanization, rural revitalization, new infrastructure and new technologies.

To date, nearly 90 percent of the first large wind and photovoltaic (PV) power base projects of about 100 million kW have been launched, according to the spokesperson.

In recent months, 11 provinces and municipalities have put into practice their energy development plans for the 2021-25 period, respectively, specifying targets for new clean energy capacity and projects.

"With the implementation of the policies and an increasing demand for energy investment, the new energy industry is expected to further accelerate its growth," according to Ping An Securities.

Green drive 

As the world's largest clean energy corridor, the mainstream of the Yangtze River is home to six hydropower stations, namely Wudongde, Baihetan, Xiluodu, Xiangjiaba, Three Gorges and Gezhouba, with a combined installed capacity of more than 71.69 million kW.

As of May 4, the cumulative power generation capacity of these hydropower giants, established and operated by state-owned power company China Three Gorges Corp. (CTG), is equivalent to saving about 910 million tons of standard coal equivalent and reducing about 240 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, thus greatly contributing to China's green development. Enterprises like CTG form the backbone of China's energy transition and green development.

"In the past 30 years, the company has led the entire hydropower industry chain in overcoming obstacles, mastered the core technologies for project construction and operation, and achieved the independent designing and manufacturing of equipment needed with all major materials produced domestically, in turn paving the way for the high-quality development of water resources," President of CTG Lei Mingshan said in an article published in Qiushi Journal, a bimonthly on China's governance and perspectives, in June.

Luo Qian, a researcher with CTG, told Beijing Review that by 2025, the company's installed clean power capacity is expected to surpass 100 million kW, with its installed renewable energy capacity set to account for more than 96 percent of its total installed capacity.

"We strive to provide clean and safe energy for the country's green development," Luo said. Apart from the clean energy corridor along the Yangtze, the company also plans to construct onshore and offshore new energy bases, including the world's largest offshore wind power corridor along China's coastline and an international clean energy corridor in partnership with other Belt and Road Initiative participants. This initiative was introduced in 2013, aiming to build a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient trade routes.

The hydrogen buses commuting at 2,000 meters above sea level between the Winter Olympic Village and the National Alpine Skiing Center in Beijing's suburban district of Yanqing, with temperatures dropping to minus 30 degrees Celsius at night, created a beautiful scenic line during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

Independently developed by the State Power Investment Corp. (SPIC), an integrated energy group in China, the Hydrogen Forerunner hydrogen fuel cell, basically the vehicle's heart, ensures the bus can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70 kg per 100 km compared with traditional fuel vehicles, which can be absorbed by 14 ordinary trees in one year.

"China has plenty renewable energy resources, a fact which in turn brings along obvious advantages in developing hydrogen energy," Shen Weidong, Deputy Director of the Department of Strategy and Planning with SPIC, told Beijing Review, adding that the cost of producing hydrogen from green electricity is low courtesy of abundant wind and solar energy. By the end of 2021, SPIC's installed capacity of wind and solar power had reached 79.36 million GW, ranking first in the world.

"In the future, hydrogen energy will be integrated with other low-carbon technologies, and applied in areas such as transportation, electricity and industrial engineering," Shen said. He added that according to the Administrative Center for China's Agenda 21, the cost of green hydrogen in China is about 30 percent and 50 percent lower than those in the U.S. and Europe, respectively. 

Qian Zhimin, Chairperson of SPIC, first spotted the opportunities of hydrogen energy in 2016, a time when only very few companies were paying attention to the field. In 2017, China's hydrogen fuel cell industry was pretty much a blank space, whereas in 2021 the country's hydrogen production was about 33 million tons. At that point, there were more than 250 hydrogen-refueling stations nationwide, accounting for 40 percent of the global number, both ranking first in the world, according to the NDRC and NEA.

The breakthrough marked by Hydrogen Forerunner is just one of many efforts on the part of Chinese companies to independently overhaul their entire industrial chain and achieve self-reliance in science and technology.

Taking the initiative 

While global warming concerns all of humanity, it requires concerted efforts to tackle climate disruption caused by human activity.

"Renewable energy is growing strongly. For example, last year and this year, we have seen huge increases in renewables. China played a very important role in that process," IEA chief Fatih Birol told Xinhua News Agency in May, adding that about 60 percent of solar energy's global growth stemmed solely from China—a leader in solar and wind power, hydropower and electric car manufacturing.

On May 26, China's special envoy for climate change affairs Xie Zhenhua met with U.S. climate envoy John Kerry in Berlin, Germany, and on June 1, other representatives of both governments further exchanged ideas on climate cooperation in Stockholm, Sweden, despite bilateral tensions.

On June 6, the White House said the U.S. would waive tariffs on panel imports from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam for the next two years as part of new efforts addressing "the urgent crisis of a changing climate."

With Southeast Asia being the main base for China's overseas production capacity of PV products and these goods subsequently being exported to the U.S., mainly from the aforementioned countries, the new American policy is a boon for Chinese PV companies in the short run. In the long run, both countries will be able to enjoy their joint achievements in the fight against climate change.

Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on June 3 that as China is the largest producer of electric vehicles, the years to come will see 70 percent of Russia's electric vehicles adopt Chinese GB/T fast-charging standards—as opposed to the European or Japanese ones.

Electric vehicles aside, "there is huge potential for China and Russia to cooperate in the fields of renewable energy, hydrogen energy and energy storage," Lu Jianzhong, a researcher with the National Think Tank Research Center under China National Petroleum Corp., told China Electric Power News. China and Russia have great potential for collaboration in low-cost, low-carbon hydrogen production and long-distance, large-scale hydrogen storage and transportation, Lu added.

At the general debate of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2021, President Xi Jinping said China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.

On March 16, four departments, including the NDRC, jointly issued a guideline on promoting cooperation on green development under the Belt and Road Initiative. The blueprint demonstrates just how the world's largest source of overseas infrastructure financing will implement low-carbon overseas investment, Cecilia Springer, Assistant Director of the Global China Initiative at Boston University Global Development Policy Center, told China Environment News.

"Given the huge investment gap for sustainable infrastructure in developing countries, China will further invest in renewable energy, which is particularly critical in achieving the green transition of developing countries," she said.

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