Nice Wind Farm, But So What?

by Bradford Plumer | June 1, 2010

Dunhuang, China—Is there more to China's low-carbon efforts than renewable power? Well, yes, of course. A lot more. Yet that's all people here ever seem to want to talk about. Maybe that shouldn't come as a shock: The country gets a ton of warm, fuzzy press for its enormous new wind and solar farms, and it's true that the scale of construction out deserves an impressed whistle or two. Out in the Gobi Desert in northwest China, the government has blocked out 3,000 square kilometers for solar, and the local government has plans to install some ten gigawatts worth of photovoltaic panels by 2025 (to put that in perspective, there is about 15 gigawatts worth of solar capacity on the entire planet right now).

As a side note, one of the features of being a callous authoritarian government is that these big projects rarely get sidetracked by local ecological concerns, as happens in, say, southern California. When we asked Dunhuang's energy director, Zhao Tingqian, whether local conservation groups had raised any worries about trampling over fragile desert habitats, he laughed and said, "Endangered species? There are no animals in the desert!" That's not really true, but it doesn't seem to stop anyone.

The real hurdles are more fundamental: When you have a gigantic solar field, you also need a futuristic grid to handle all that intermittent power. And, while the Chinese government doesn't have much trouble stringing up new high-voltage lines wherever it feels like (unlike in the United States, where this is shaping up to be a pretty contentious issue), the country is still lagging in efforts to build a smart grid. It's not for lack of money—the government dished out some $7.3 billion on advanced grid gadgets in its last round of stimulus spending—but hashing out the technical issues is still, as best I can tell, a serious struggle. So a lot of that wind and solar capacity could end up getting wasted, and some of it already does.

That's why, in the near term, efficiency will have to play a much, much bigger role in China's lower-carbon future than those fabled wind farms. Alvin Lin, a climate consultant with the Natural Resource Defense Council's Beijing office, estimates that if China wants to meet its new carbon intensity goals—that is, a 40 percent reduction in CO2 per unit of GDP by 2020—then about 80 percent of that effort will have to come from rooting out waste and getting more energy efficient. There's certainly a lot of room to improve: About two-thirds of China's greenhouse gas emissions come from the industrial sector, which is on average about four to five times more energy-intensive than its U.S. counterpart. (The government is making some headway by shutting down some of the grimiest factories and power plants by fiat, though it's leery of doing anything that puts people out of work.)

Problem is, making this country more efficient is a real struggle. Take green buildings. The central government has issued some pretty ambitious standards governing insulation and energy use in new homes and skyscrapers. And, says Kevin Mo, who directs NRDC's China green-building efforts, the laws do tend to get followed in Beijing and Shanghai, where there are architects who know how to design buildings that are up to code and inspectors who can check the results. But out in smaller cities and towns, inspectors are in short supply, enforcement is rare, and it's doubtful that more than a handful of the new buildings actually meet the standards.

Meanwhile, there's nuclear power. China is currently pushing ahead with 22 new reactors and is on pace to get 6 percent of its energy from nuclear by 2020. (Interestingly, NRDC's China office takes a neutral stance on nuclear, unlike in the United States.) For a long time, one of the big obstacles to a nuclear renaissance here was that Western countries were leery of selling the technology to China, although that seems to have changed after the just-concluded U.S-China Strategic Economic Dialogue and a bunch of new Westinghouse reactors are likely on the way. (Also, China still has no real plan for dealing with its nuclear waste: A lot of it just seems to get plopped out West, and there are plans for putting a permanent repository in—where else?—the Gobi Desert.)

On top of that, it seems like China will now be working with the U.S. Geological Survey to see if it can tap some of its shale reserves and develop its own domestic supplies of natural gas, which produces about half the CO2 that coal does—the plan is to get some 10 percent of its energy from natural gas by 2020, which would be a big shift. Anyway, that's all a flurry of statistics, but the broader point is that renewable power still accounts for a relatively tiny part of China's low-carbon plan, and, at least for now, the government seems to see those vast wind and solar farms less as a central plank in its efforts to reduce emissions and more as a means of nurturing what it sees as an emerging industry.

(Flickr photo credit: marvin908)

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