The Emperors King Coal, part 5 – Coal Part of Green China
Part 5 out of 6, in this “King Coal” series by Juha Tuominen. Juha is a foreigner living in Beijing since 2008. Having worked several years in central government-controlled industries such as energy, this series of articles also reflects the writer’s own experiences and observations on how things work or do not work in China.
Coal Part of Green China
The year 2011 was a turning point in China when it comes to pollution. Until that year, the central government had publicly measured air quality in Beijing by counting days of blue skies in a year. It vowed to improve the air quality and was publishing the blue skies -meters for a few years already showing progress. However, the winter of 2011 was extraordinary dry in Beijing, and the notorious smog kept thickening. In order to stay on a course of positive development, the authorities had to interpret less blue skies as blue skies to keep on track. At the same time, Chinese citizens had become more aware and started to demand more accurate air quality figures, including PM 2.5 particle index.
In the beginning, the central government refused and went along with the blue skies -meter. But the people kept on insisting, and the issue started to raise a political crisis as people were turning against its leaders. The central government saw no way out of the situation and decided to adopt a new strategy. By releasing more accurate data on air quality, the central government was able to utilize citizens’ anger against the polluters in order to gain better control of polluting industries. Since then, there has been no going back, and real-time accurate air quality data is nowadays published for each major city in China.
By releasing more accurate data on air quality, the central government was able to utilize citizens’ anger against the polluters in order to gain better control of polluting industries
Five Year Plans
One factor behind the slowing growth of coal in China has been the country’s commitment to become the world’s largest renewable energy producer, especially wind power. Under China’s tenth Five Year Plan, in 2001, the country took an aggressive step towards renewable energy. It included among others a domestic content requirement of 70 percent for wind turbines, which was then lifted in 2010. At that point, the requirement was no longer needed as all wind turbines were already nationally produced.
In 2018 the total installed wind power capacity in China was 184 GW, less than 20 percent of the full coal capacity. But both wind and solar development in China have relied heavily on subsidies, which means that they are economically nowhere near coal. Very recently, China has declared to be able to launch wind and solar projects that would produce electricity at the same price as coal. At the same time, the central government announced that onshore wind subsidies would end in the beginning of 2021, and solar should soon follow.
Yet, for 2019 the government has announced a budget of three billion yuan for solar electricity subsidies. Some estimations say that there already is a backlog of 120 billion yuan for these subsidies. Certainly, a challenging issue with the economic slowdown and ever-growing public debt. Thus, renewable energy might not be a sustainable solution for China’s energy mix; for instance, China will most likely miss its target of 210 GW wind capacity by 2020 rather significantly.
Clean Energy Backfire
If energy policy fails, it is fairly likely that China turns quickly back to coal as they did in the city of Baoding in Hebei province earlier this year. Baoding received negative publicity in China when two thirds of its residential heating became coal-powered again, switching back from gas and electricity.
According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the reason behind the back-switch was that the city failed to get money for subsidies. But in all fairness, switching to clean heating is estimated to cost almost the double compared to coal, and Hebei province would need a few billion yuan for investment and subsidies to be able to use clean energy. Currently, the central government’s funding covers only a tiny part of that.
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