By Xing Zhang
At the UN General Assembly in September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced China’s ambition to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. To strengthen these double-carbon goals, Xi further announced a set of national climate targets for 2030 at the Climate Ambition Summit. One of the new objectives specified that China should increase its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1,200 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, which would require maintaining the pace already achieved in the previous five-year period. However, on 12 October 2021, at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) via video link, President Xi shared that China had smoothly kicked off the construction of some “mega” wind and solar clean-energy bases.
The “mega” wind and solar clean-energy bases
In November 2021, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s state economic planner, published a list of the first batch of “mega” wind and solar projects. These projects have a total installed capacity of 97.05 GW and are scattered across 19 provinces. Part of the generated electricity will be sent to demand centres, and the rest will be used locally. Although there are surrounding coal-fired power plants to support clean energy, details of the coal power plans were not given in the NDRC’s list.
On the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in March 2022, the director of NDRC, He Lifeng, announced that China would build “the largest” scale of solar and wind power generation capacity “in history”. He referred to the second “batch” of “mega” clean-energy bases, which will contain large wind and solar farms with a combined installed capacity of 455 GW and are mainly located in the Gobi and other deserts. Projects accounting for 200 GW are scheduled to be completed by 2025, with 150 GW to be sent to the more populated eastern coastal provinces. The rest of the 255 GW is planned to be completed by 2030, with 165 GW expected to be exported.
The second batch of energy base projects was largely situated in the deserts in Inner Mongolia, with 284 GW capacity. Another 134 GW capacity is distributed in other desert areas. Coal Mining Subsidence Areas will also host 37 GW. Most of the clean-energy bases in the second batch come as an integrated system, where large-scale clean-energy installations are supported by gigawatts of coal-fired power plants or energy storage facilities to enable a high-level of utilisation of wind and solar energy, which can fluctuate due to variable weather conditions. Long-distance, ultra-high-voltage (UHV) electricity transmission lines equipped with AC and flexible DC transmission technology are electricity carriers.
To give an idea of the size and relevance of the two batches of 555 GW clean-energy bases scale-up, the total wind and solar installed capacity in 2020 of the top six countries after China was 537 GW, while the world’s biggest installer, China, had a combined installation of 536 GW (see figure 1).
China already had 306 GW of solar and 328 GW of wind at the end of 2021, which puts it halfway towards meeting its 1,200 GW pledge by the end of the decade. The deployment of 555 GW wind turbines and solar panels in the Gobi and desert areas alone can bring the total wind and solar installation to 1,180 GW, 20 GW short of President Xi’s pledge. In fact, these clean-energy bases take China towards meeting the 1,200 GW target in 2026.
Large renewable energy infrastructure requires an enormous amount of land. Building “mega” clean-energy bases concentrated in the Gobi and other arid regions, such as sandy deserts and rocky and other barren lands, can reduce the costs of land, construction, operation, and maintenance for the projects. Choosing the deserts and other arid regions also has the ecological benefits of transforming the landscape and unlocking new-found uses for marginalised areas (see case study).
The clean-energy bases and coal power
China had installed renewable capacity exceeding 1TW by the end of 2021, accounting for 44.8 per cent of the total installed power generation capacity. However, power production from renewable projects only make up 29.8 per cent of the power mix. Wind and solar facilities, with nearly 25 per cent of total installed capacity, contributed to less than 10 per cent of the total electricity mix. Coal power provided 60 per cent of total electricity with 46.6 per cent of installed capacity (see figure 3). China’s electricity grid is still mainly coal-based. The “mega” clean-energy bases will raise the wind and solar share in China’s power generation to 20 per cent by 2025. Absorbing this increase in power generation will require major changes to the way China’s power grid and coal-fired power plants are operated.
China insists that it “will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th FYP period and phase it down in the 15th FYP period”. China’s green and low-carbon transformation of its energy system is based on the notion of “first building renewable energy then decommission coal”. Coal power will change from the mainstay of power generation to a supporting power source for the grid and a stabiliser for wind and solar power.
The “mega” clean-energy bases are the first step of China’s power sector’s green transformation. Each base in the Ulaanbuhe, Kubuqi, Tenggeli, and Badan Jilin deserts contains 75 per cent of the total capacity for wind and solar, accompanied by 25 per cent of coal power to support the steady operation of the grid system. These four clean-energy bases will add a total of 128 GW of wind and solar to Inner Mongolia’s power generation capacity, and it will also add 26 GW of new coal power and retrofit 15.9 GW of coal-fired power plants for extended life.
The clean-energy bases inject new life into the declining coal power sector and give the coal power industry a new direction to adjust its development plan. However, it may add another reason to build new power plants in addition to the existing “replacing undersized with big” plan. The permission for the postponed 2 x 660 MW NingXia Huadian Yongli coal-fired power plant was reactivated this March. It is reported that this ultra-supercritical power plant will be built to support the 6 GW Ningxia coal mine subsidence area’s new energy project. But a published National Energy Administration (NA) document shows that the Ningxia project has only 3.96 GW retrofitting coal power planned.
There have already been signs of possible “dash for coal” initiatives since China came out of the COVID-19 lockdown. In 2020, 38.4 GW of coal-fired power capacity was commissioned in China, more than three times the amount built elsewhere around the world. New coal power plants totalling 25 GW were added to the grid in 2021, a drop from 2020 but still significantly more than the rest of the world put together. In addition to the 33 GW of newly under-construction coal power plants in 2021, at least 8.6 GW of new capacity got the green light to go for construction just in the first quarter of 2022. After accounting for plant retirements, China’s coal power capacity is still increasing. The elephant in the room is growing larger, undermining the impressive efforts of the clean-energy bases.
China’s central government encourages increasing electricity transmission from west to east with various large projects. With renewable energy scaling up, more backup and peaking electricity are needed. Electricity exporters wish to reduce electricity sent out during peak times and keep enough backup electricity to avoid power shortages, while receivers also need more electricity for peak times. The eastern, coastal provinces inevitably prefer generating electricity locally in order to reduce reliance on other provinces for power, which means building coal-fired power plants. Building coal power plants can also help boost their regions’ economic performance. For example, Liuhe coal-fired plant in Zhejiang province is going to build units 3 and 4 (1,000 MW each) to reduce cross-province electricity trading and help balance energy supply and demand in the province.
Summary and policy suggestions
The design and deployment of the “mega” clean-energy bases are enabled by China’s quick, centralised planning and top-down decision-making on resource allocation. The clean-energy bases will help secure China’s leadership in the global renewable energy market. China is not only a world leader in renewable energy but also leads in the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines. Moreover, it is the biggest supplier of the raw materials they are made of, such as silicon, glass, steel, and copper.
Until adequate energy storage technologies mature, coal power plants will continue to play an important role in China’s electricity mix. The “mega” clean-energy bases will accelerate the development of energy storage technologies and the transition of the power system. Coal power is shifting from a baseload provider to a peak-shaving and basic supporting role.
However, the projects also provide an opportunity to build new coal-fired power plants to supply sufficient and flexible support to moderate variable renewable generation. A coal-fired power plant has a typical lifespan of 30 to 40 years. Building new power plants will risk locking in more carbon-emitting infrastructure, which jeopardises China’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
Considering the power oversupply in China, it is almost inevitable that some coal-fired units will be shut down ahead of their designed life. China’s coal fleet is young, with an average age of 12 years. Retiring early is a waste of assets and resources. The demand for coal power to support wind and solar energy should be met by retrofitting existing power plants. Accurate assessments and evaluations of existing coal power capacity are needed to avoid building unnecessary new coal plants. To control the construction of new coal-fired power plants, the NDRC should cancel the local governmentsʼ right to permit building new plants immediately.
It is essential to quickly nationalise the electricity trade market and promote provincial grid merge with the national grid. Creating incentives for flexible operation will help to solve the conflict between exporters and importers of electricity.
Developing the “mega” wind and solar clean-energy bases is the first step to executing China’s green energy transition plan – building renewable energy first, then phasing out coal. If built according to the plan, the clean-energy bases will be workhorses riding China towards achieving its double-carbon goal.
About the Author
Xing Zhang is the China Energy Analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). CREA is an independent research organisation focused on revealing the trends, causes, and health impacts, as well as the solutions to air pollution.