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Coal, Renewables, and China: Headlines and Bottom Lines

Armond Cohen's picture
Clean Air Task Force

Armond Cohen is co-founder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, which he has led since its formation in 1996. In addition to leading CATF, Armond is actively involved in CATF...

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  • Jan 27, 2014

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 modernisation and industrialisation 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:

“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.”

(Emphasis added).

As I have shown in another 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.

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Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jan 27, 2014

Yep, another classic case of renewables activists measuring wind and solar against thermal power stations via installed capacity. This is very highly misleading. As a rough estimate, one kW of solar PV capacity is probably worth about one order of magnitude less than one kW of thermal generation – about a factor of 4 for the capacity factor and another factor of 2 (very rough estimate, heavily dependent on the level of penetration) for the intermittency. 

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Jan 27, 2014

Your 2013 solar pv numbers for China are wrong.  They added over 12GW.


I agree that’s its practically nothing compared to their coal increase, but they’re headed for irreversible ecological disaster if they keep pushing coal like this.  At a certain point the environment just can’t take anymore pollution without corrupting farm land and making your inner cities practically unlivable. 

Armond Cohen's picture
Armond Cohen on Jan 27, 2014

Josh — I see that Bloomberg says 12 GW but the China government website. says 3.6 GW. I assume China’s government wouldn’t have reason to understate. I’ll go with the China government numbers for now but will investigate,

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