At nearly 10,000 feet, the high deserts of Qinghai Province in northwestern China are an ideal place to tap the sun’s energy. Not much lives out in this moonscape of dust and rock on the Tibetan Plateau, a place so dry that snow evaporates before it hits the ground, only finding a place to rest on the north-facing rocky crags and glaciers that cap the Kunlun Mountains. An occasional Himalayan vulture, with a wingspan greater than 8 feet, can be seen soaring in the blue skies. Down at ground level, workers at a massive solar energy farm recently built here say they sometimes spot Tibetan wolves nosing among the hundreds of solar panels that march row upon row toward the mountains to the south.
This new 1,900-acre, 500-megawatt solar farm, known as the Frontrunner Photovoltaic Project, was jointly developed by two Chinese energy companies, Sungrow Power Supply Co. and China Three Gorges New Energy. Thanks to the electricity generated by the installation, only one of the province’s 10 coal-fired power plants needed to be in operation this summer. And for 15 days in June, the rural province of 6 million people derived 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. While half of that was from hydropower, the rest came from the wind and solar projects that have been expanding in Qinghai in recent years. By the end of last year, the province was generating more than three-quarters of its electricity from renewable energy.
When approved last year, the Frontrunner project not only had the lowest recorded bid price per kilowatt-hour for a solar photovoltaic project in China’s renewable energy history — lower than the price for coal-fired power in Qinghai. But the massive installation also became China’s first large-scale solar project developed without government subsidies. And in a striking example of how China’s mix of a command and capitalist economy can often work with remarkable speed and efficiency, the Frontrunner project was built in only three months, with approval coming in September 2018 and the first solar energy generated on December 29.
Solar installations are expected to drop by about half this year, from a peak of 53 gigawatts in 2017.
If the Frontrunner project bodes well for the future of renewable energy in China, it also illuminates important roadblocks that have recently slowed the nation’s green energy transition and led to an increase in CO2 emissions following several years when emissions had plateaued. Although major solar and wind power installations in China’s more far-flung provinces can produce large amounts of renewable energy, a lack of high-voltage transmission infrastructure means that a sizeable percentage of that green energy still goes unused.
In addition, as renewable energy prices have fallen and the central government has grown increasingly concerned about the impact of the U.S.-China trade war on China’s economy, renewable subsidies are being phased out. Wind and solar facilities must now compete directly at auction with other forms of power generation. China’s green energy sector seems increasingly capable of winning that competition, but solar energy installations are nevertheless expected to drop by about half this year, from a peak of 53 gigawatts in 2017.
And while curtailing subsidies for wind and solar power, the central government has sharply increased financial support for what it calls “new energy” extraction, which includes fracking of shale gas and separating methane from coal. Those subsidies are an important reason behind China’s rising CO2 emissions.
What happens with China’s green energy transition has broader significance in the global climate fight, given that the country is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. With its renewable energy growth slowing and its fossil fuel use rising, analysts fear that China’s emissions may not level off by 2030, the target set in the Paris Climate Agreement, which would be a significant setback for efforts to slow global warming. Renewable energy proponents are now seeking to avert a continued slowdown in China’s alternative energy sector and spark new green energy growth.
“Though China is the largest clean energy market in the world, wind and solar only accounted for 5.2 percent and 2.5 percent of China’s national power generation in 2018,” says Kevin Tu, former China program manager at the International Energy Agency and now a fellow with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “Against the backdrop of an ongoing U.S.-China trade war and a slowing Chinese economy, political priority of climate change in China is unlikely to become very high in the near future, indicating great difficulties for Beijing to further upgrade its climate ambitions.”
A major issue, according to Tu and other experts, is the level of “curtailment,” or energy that is generated but not purchased because it cannot be absorbed by the electricity grid. The degree of curtailment has been falling — from 17 percent in 2016 to 7 percent last year — but Tu says that is still too high. Elevated solar curtailment rates in the provinces of Gansu and Xinjiang, as well as in Tibet, led China’s National Energy Agency to halt approvals for new solar projects in those regions for 2019.
“Wind and solar curtailments have been a chronic policy challenge in China in recent years, indicating an urgent need for additional power sector reform,” says Tu.
People in Golmud, population 200,000, take great pride in the Frontunner solar power installation. Golmud’s workers have a history of building grand projects, including the Qinghai-Tibet highway, which was constructed in the 1950s and is memorialized at a park in Golmud. More recently, workers in Golmud took part in the construction of the world’s highest railway, a 710-mile section running south from the city to Lhasa, Tibet. The line, which crosses Tangula Pass at 16,640 feet, was inaugurated in 2006.
Just like their brethren who built these earlier projects, workers at the Frontunner project had to deal with frequent dust storms, altitude sickness, and weather shifts from extreme cold to blazing sun. “I’m very excited because we managed to build such a big project out in the desert at an altitude like this,” Xu Rugang, project manager at Sungrow’s engineering department says while gazing out across an expanse of PV panels glinting in the sun. “Just imagine the difficulties our workers had to endure to make this happen.”
To reduce the country’s CO2 emissions, experts say it is crucial that power produced in provinces like Qinghai be transmitted seamlessly to the industrial and population centers along China’s coast. Many larger renewable projects are located in remote landlocked provinces like Qinghai, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia. Until more transmission lines are built and government reforms are enacted that better enable power to be transferred to other provinces, far-western “battery provinces” like Qinghai will mainly end up generating power for themselves.
After plateauing from 2014 to 2016, China’s CO2 emissions have risen in the last several years.
What’s needed, Tu says, is for the central government to eliminate barriers of inter-provincial power trading and to simultaneously give renewables priority in the transfer and dispatching of electricity.
Alvin Lin, an energy and climate expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has worked in China for more than a decade, says that an important near-term element in the climate battle is to sustain the momentum of China’s renewable energy drive so that the country’s CO2 emissions peak before 2030. Many experts increasingly argue that the 2030 target date is insufficient.
“We and others would like to push for an earlier carbon peaking around 2025,” Lin says. “China would need to stop building new coal plants now and bring coal power capacity and generation down rapidly.”
Should China’s emissions not peak until 2030 or even later, experts say that delay could contribute to global temperature increases that hit 3 or 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) — far above the consensus international goal of 1.5 to 2 degrees C.
After plateauing from 2014 to 2016, China’s carbon dioxide emissions have risen in the last several years, with an estimated 4 percent increase in the first half of 2019. While coal consumption and production peaked in 2013, both have increased again since 2017 and are slowly creeping back to 2013 levels.
Reliance on gas from fracking in the Sichuan basin, as well as coal-bed methane extraction and increased imports of natural gas (China is the second-largest natural gas importer in the world), are on the rise. Since China counts unconventional gases like shale gas and coal-bed methane as “new energy,” they are eligible for subsidies from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology [MIIT]. Roughly $830 million — more than 80 percent of an MIIT new energy fund — went to subsidizing such projects in 2018, according to a recent report by the state-run China Energy News.
While continuing to fund unconventional gas, China has now largely stopped providing national-level subsidies to wind and solar projects and is implementing reforms to its feed-in-tariff system, moving to replace it with auctions in which wind and solar power must compete directly with fossil fuels.
Some say they think China could install as much as 100 gigawatts of solar power annually, if renewables were given higher priority.
This process has started to slow the overall added capacity for wind and solar. While new solar photovoltaic installations hit an all-time high of 53 gigawatts [GW] in 2017, they slipped to around 41 GW last year and current figures put solar installations at slightly more than 11 GW for the first half of 2019. Projections are for about 25 GW of solar power to be installed this year and in succeeding years through 2025, an amount that would not sharply curtail fossil fuel use.
Another problem is that renewable energy projects are facing land-use restrictions that protect agricultural, industrial, and urban land in provinces like Guangdong in South China, the country’s economic powerhouse, says Jonathan Luan Dong, a renewables analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. While several non-subsidized renewable energy projects had been scheduled to start in Guangdong in 2019, few actually seem to be moving forward.
When I attempted to visit renewable energy projects that were said to be in the works, government offices and companies in the Guangdong cities of Jiangmen, Meizhou, and Zhanjiang declined my requests because the projects hadn’t started.
Some renewable energy analysts say they think China could install as much as 100 gigawatts of solar power annually — four times the current level — if renewables , including residential solar PV initiatives, were given higher priority. China has so far set a modest 3 GW quota in 2019 for residential solar, which would make subsidies available to about 600,000 households to install solar panels.
“Stimulating ….. distributed energy projects in coastal provinces is another way to push renewables in China while bypassing existing barriers,” Tu says.
Sungrow and Three Gorges recently won a bid for a new 100-megawatt solar farm in the deserts of Inner Mongolia, beating its own record bid price for the Frontrunner project. Asked how much solar power could expand in China’s desert regions, Sungrow’s Xu Rugang says it will come down to government planners in the end. The space is available, he says. The price is right. The environmental costs of coal-fired power are well-known.
“It depends on the target that the country sets,” Xu said. “Of course [if it is larger], we can make full use of the land here.”
Additional reporting and research assistance was provided by Zhong Yunfan.