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Wind Energy Growing Faster than Coal in China: False Math

In a recent Slate piece Ramez Naam argues:

In almost every way you cut it, China is already taking a much more aggressive approach toward climate change than the United States is.

This is a rather bold claim seems perfectly fitted to Carl Sagan’s statement “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Naam’s evidence is extraordinary, unfortunately it is also more than a bit inaccurate. He puts forward a bunch of evidence to support his claim. But let’s just consider this one:  ”China loves wind more than coal.”

An extraordinary claim indeed. What’s his evidence?

For all this investment in solar power, the energy source most commonly associated with China is coal—dirty, dirty coal, the most CO2-intensive of all the fossil fuels. And yes, China does burn almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. But in 2012, China actually deployed more new wind power than new coal power. In fact, wind power growth was more than double that of coal power growth in China—26 terawatt-hours of new wind generation in 2012 versus only 12 terawatt-hours of added coal generation in the same year.

Now, the inexorable growth of coal in China in the last decade is often news even to people who make some kind of living writing about energy, but could it possibly be slowing down? And could wind be growing faster than coal?

Consider how much coal capacity China has been installing in the last decade:



In 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 China added at least 50 GW of new coal plants each year. The average is slightly over 60 GW per year. In simple terms: since 2005 China has added the equivalent of more than five United Kingdom’s worth of electricity capacity, all in the form of coal. You will also note that the above projections (from the US government laboratory) are not exactly projecting a rapid decline in new coal plants.

So, what did happen in 2012?

Here is the basic arithmetic. China opened 50 GW of new coal plants in 2012 (according to the article Naam himself cites). In contrast China only added 15.9 GW of wind capacity. Capacity of course does not tell the whole story, a point often missed by people. Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that China’s wind farms had a capacity factor of 21.6% last year (though I must point out that where claims by BNEF are concerned you should consider investing in a bucket full of salt), which is roughly in line with most statistics I have seen. So, in real terms growth of coal plants is at least eight times greater than in wind farms. Compare this basic reality with Naam’s claim that wind is growing twice as fast as coal.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that I am repeating myself with this post. However, this now appears to a zombie fact, and I expect it to be repeated quite in the too often fact free debate around energy.

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Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 20, 2013

Apparently, this feel-good renewable energy headline originates from the fact that Chinese thermal generation increased only about 0.3% in 2012. This was mostly because hydropower generation came roaring back after a drought in 2011, thereby requiring less coal-fired electricity. This is therefore more of a cautionary tale about the variability of even the most reliable renewable energy source (hydro) than it is a triumph for wind. 

But I suppose solar and wind advocates will continue with their badly misleading feel-good headlines. My favourate remains that “German solar power generated as much electricity as 20 nuclear power plants”, conveniently forgetting to add “for one hour on the sunniest day of the year”. 

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on May 21, 2013

@Robert Wilson

There is something funny about the statistics page – – referenced in the original article – at least as translated from Chinese into English using Google translate. It says that from 2011 through 2012, Chinese electricity production from nuclear increased by 12.6% to 982 billion kilowatt-hours. That would indicate that nuclear production in 2011 was 872 billion kilowatt hours. 

Those numbers cannot be correct considering China’s installed nuclear capacity of roughly 14 GWe – –  even though that number is rapidly growing.

Plants totalling 14 GWe of capacity can only produce 123 billion kilowatt hours of electricity at 100% CF. My guess is that the nuclear component of the report is off by a factor of 10.

(Note: US nuclear electricity generation in 2012 was just 769 billion kilowatt hours – – which is down by 5% from the 806 billion kw-hrs achieved in 2007, 2008, 2010)

I’m not arguing about your commentary, just pointing out that the numbers quoted from the original source might be subject to some revision.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 21, 2013

“….conveniently forgetting to add “for one hour on the sunniest day of the year”. 

I don’t mean to be bad, but I almost fell over laughing. This is why I call them Renewables Enthusiasts.  What is trully tragic is that whatever meager funds we have available to secure FF and Carbon free energy may be squandered away by politicians who are slurping up the dis-information.

Bill Woods's picture
Bill Woods on May 21, 2013

Using Google Translate, I see decimal points which aren’t in the original.  Apparently 亿千瓦时 means ‘one hundred million kW-h’? [edit: Specifically, 亿 means ‘100 million’.]








2012 generating capacity of 4.9774 trillion kwh, an increase of 5.2%;

water runoff, generating 864.1 billion kwh, an increase of 29.3%;

thermal power 3.9108 trillion kwh, an increase of 0.3%;

98.2 billion kwh of nuclear power, by 12.6%;

wind power 100.4 billion kwh, an increase of 35.5%;

solar power and other 3.5 billion kwh, an increase of 414%.

Geoff Thomas's picture
Geoff Thomas on May 27, 2013

There seem to be lots of unsubstantiated claims on both sides but I think a couple of important facts need to be repeated.

Wind power capacity factor. – having been a representative for wind turbine manufacturing companies and actually submitted full compliant Tenders for various wind farms and turbine installation, in Australia,  (Thursday Island, King Island, Portsmith S.A. Albany W.A. Windy Hill Qld) I can say with some authority that responsible members of the industry look for 40% capacity factor, based on windspeed, and draw the line under 30% as a minimum. – Not saying that some companies don’t feel bound by that, but usually the economics don’t add up so major funding will be very difficult tp obtain.

Major grants, or decisions based on publicity not economics could be part of some installations, but I would doubt that the majority are such.

Secondly, Coal fired power stations do not usually run at full capacity 24/7, the normal situation is for them to run at close to full capacity twice  day at Peak usage, – a total of 4 or so hours depending, another 4 to 6 hours at less than 20%, and in between a very changeable amount depending on local conditions, availability of rapid response Gas powered stations, etc.

This situation is exacerbated by the presence of Nuclear powered stations as they must run virtually continuously at full capacity, partially due to danger in constantly changing the out put, partially from the extreme expense of building Nuclear power stations requiring full output to justify that high expense.

The end result of those elements is that many coal fired power stations end up with a capacity of not much more than the wind farms.

Another point is the difficulty many folk have with correctly reporting information from China.

The Chinese economy has had incredible year on year growth, but as has been stated on other discussions, should that growth percentage fall, headlines abound that the Chinese economy has “stalled”, even though in fact the actual increase will be greater than the increase of the year before, because a slightly reduced percentage is still a percentage of an increased growth.

It is also important to have noticed over the years that Chinese Govt ministers, although as fallible as politicians anywhere else in the world, keep coming out with policy statements that they plan to reduce coal fired electricity and increase Wind and Solar, and even that they do not plan to go fully Nuclear, which they could technically have already done had they chosen so to do.

There is also enormous unrest in China due to pollution, so politicians are taking that issue very seriously, 1,3 + Billion people can generate a lot of unrest..

There are also considerable plans and action with installing Geothermal hot rock in China, a brief article here,

Geoff Thomas's picture
Geoff Thomas on May 31, 2013

Hi Willem, Your statement, “Weather-dependent wind energy, absent storage, can never be a stand alone energy, always supplementary to base-loaded and intermediate plants.” is a mindset that is true in a similiar way as Euclidean Geometry, which is a subset of Projective Geometry, is only true in limited situations, for example in Euclidean Geometry, parrallel lines meet at infinity, so as we can’t go there that is the end.  in Projective Geometry, because parrallel lines meet at infinity, a whole new relationship (and simplification) of lines is possible.  (a good discusssion of projective geometry can be found at )  Similiarly, simply by asking “How can Wind Energy be part of the electrical energy mix known as ‘the Grid’, we start looking at possible solutions, not barriers.

The concept of the ‘Virtual Grid’ is a good example, where a mix of renewables and back-up generation such as Gas and Geothermal hot rocks and in future, storage, is drawn on to provide full supply, and where also the cheapness of Wind and Solar is maximised to reduce electricity costs.

But not to get into that, I want to have a look at the word baseload,  – although often trotted out by the anti change group as a bulwark against renewables, when one examines it closely, it is more base less,

To use an example I have on previous posts, the town of Cooktown in Queensland Australia uses up to 20 Megawatts per hour at Peak time but only 4 megawatts in the middle of the night.

What is baseload in that quite typical situation? a 4 megawatt nuclear plant?

All that achieves is an apparent reduction of 4 megs all up the range, and an even bigger proportional swing from minimum to Peak, so nuclear is not baseload if that is what baseload is, nor would it be cost effective to have a 20 megawatt Nuclear plant.

Is Coal baseload because it can ramp up from nearly zero to full? then so is gas and Hot rock geothermal and thermal Solar with heat storage but i think one would be better to call that Total load.

Alaways good to look at underlying assumptions eh!



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