Will China overperform its renewable targets?

By Charlie Wilson

According to an article in Carbon Brief from Hu Min of the Innovative Green Development Programme, China’s 14th five-year plan (FYP) for renewable energy for 2021-2025 aims for:

  • 1,200 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar power capacity by 2030,
  • 25% of energy consumption to be met by non-fossil fuels by 2030.

This means that China’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will peak before 2030, but peaking emissions early and helping bridge the global emission reduction gap towards at 1.5C pathway is dependent on the extent to which the plan can overperform its goals.

To increase the renewables share from 15.9% in 2020 to 20% by 2025, the plan sets a series of targets and actions.

  • renewable energy production in million tonnes of coal equivalent (Mtce), overall and for non-electricity supplies; from 680 Mtce in 2020 to 1000 Mtce in 2025.
  • renewable electricity generation in terawatt hours (TWh); up from 2,210TWh in 2020 to 3,399 TWh in 2025
  • and renewable energy share in the grid, up from 28.8% in 2020 to 33% in 2025, with non-hydro sources up from 11.4% to 18%.

This plan abandons the mandatory generation capacity increase targets, which were the focus of the last two FYPs, but requires “newly increased renewable generation [to] make up more than 50% of the incremental electricity consumption” – so at least half of the increase in demand will be covered by renewables.

Meeting this target would require generation from wind and solar to increase by around 150TWh annually over the 14th FYP period from 2021-2025.

In the 13FYP period the annual increase was 100TWh from wind and solar. But in 2021 this had risen to 255TWh.

China has overperformed on renewable energy development goals in the last three FYPs. Since the first renewable goal, in the 11th FYP period, most of the quantitative goals for development of the sector have seen overperformance, especially in wind and solar total capacity.

This has increased the share of renewable energy generation from 10% in 2010 to 16% in 2020.

The new renewable plan needs at least 100GW of wind and solar capacity to be added annually in the next five years. The annual increase needed to reach China’s NDC goal of 1,200GW of wind and solar by 2030 is around 75GW from 2021 to 2030– meaning the renewable plan is likely to overperform; with serious projections that the 2030 target will be hit four years early.

Already, ambitious implementation at the local level is boosting overperformance at the national level. 23 out of 34 regions and areas have now set wind and solar capacity growth targets, amounting to more than 120GW per year between 2021 to 2025.

Analysis published by Carbon Brief in May found at least 570GW of capacity is set to be built during the 14FYP period, while some recent press reports have suggested more than 150GW could be built this year alone. Continuing at this rate will double renewable energy capacity by 2025.

At the same time, current slower growth has seen carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fall in China for three quarters running; a trend expected to deepen.

Renewable energy investment is set to play a more significant role in boosting the economy, at a time when China faces the economic impact of Covid and the Ukraine war. In 2021, China’s investment in clean energy was more than 30% of the global total.

In the Global Wind Energy Council’s 2022 report China surpassed the UK and Germany in offshore wind; and is now the largest offshore wind market in the world, with 40% of global installed capacity, which means a growing market for offshore turbine manufacturers, many from overseas.

In the 14th FYP, China will build offshore “power bases” in five regions, and six coastal provinces’ energy development plans indicate a total of 32GW offshore wind capacity growth during the 14th FYP period 2021-2025;  an increase of more than 60% on the 2020 level.

The success of this plan will rely on building large-scale renewable energy bases and integrating renewable energy into the grid. This will require flexibility to balance and accommodate fluctuations in renewable output; through energy storage, like pumped hydro,  demand management, and flexible backing from fossil fuel plants redefined as structural backup and no longer the mainstay of the grid. Permits for new coal power plants would be issued only if the projects are supplementary to renewables. This needs smart policy design and appropriately designed pricing signals.

What this means is that the faster renewable capacity is built and integrated into the grid, the less China will have to rely on its coal fired power stations for energy security.