Renewable Energy is Booming in China – But so is Coal

Brian McCowan, Zondits staff, 4/4/2023

China is leading the world in the completion of renewable energy projects. In 2022, China added almost as many renewable energy projects to the grid as the rest of the world combined, according to the Global Energy Monitor (GEM). GEM is a non-profit organization that tracks energy projects and fuel usage for all common energy sources.

However, GEM reports that there is another side to the story. While worldwide reliance on coal is decreasing, China is approving a “massive wave” of new coal-fired power plants. GEM collaborated with the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) on a study that concludes that China authorized 106 gigawatts of new coal power capacity in 2022. That capacity equates to about 100 large coal-fired power plants; four times the number approved in 2021.

The researchers believe that the chief reason for the rapid increase is, ironically, concerns over energy security and resilience associated with last summer’s crippling heatwave and drought. According to the New York Times and other media outlets, the drought had a dramatic effect on China’s hydroelectric dams, causing rolling blackouts in many regions. CREA and GEM analysts state that the new coal capacity may not necessarily result in increased carbon emissions if China is able to continue the expansion of the clean energy sector.

Mike Hemsley, deputy director at the Energy Transitions Commission think tank has reported that he sees reason for optimism. “China is building renewables at such a staggering rate [that] it is said to outperform the targets they have set themselves,” Hemsley recently stated at International Energy Week in London. “When we look around the world today, we can firmly see that the energy transition is in progress.”

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA seems somewhat more cautious. She told CNBC in a recent interview that the energy situation in China allows for a “huge range of outcomes,” stating that China’s climate targets could be seen as “flexible or as lacking in ambition” depending on one’s perspective. If China does achieve its climate goals, the new coal power plants will “end up as short-lived and under-utilized malinvestments.”