China’s non-fossil energy contributions are so big, yet so small!
In 2014, China completed another jaw-dropping capacity addition to their grid, with over 103 gigawatts (GW) added (official data here and here). Well over half of capacity was from non-fossil sources, however the 47 GW of new thermal capacity was much higher than the China Electricity Council had projected at the beginning of 2014 (32 GW). The solar number is actually higher than the 8 GW shown here (more like 12 GW or so), but unfortunately…while China is setting records in renewable energy capacity additions, it is all still a rounding error.
China produced 5,546 terrawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2014, which is now 35% more than the U.S. (4092 TWh). Solar accounted for 23 TWh of that overall production, which is a 170% increase year on year, but unfortunately only 0.4% of total production. If you squint, you can see the yellow sliver below! Coal electricity production fell by 0.7%, as hydro production surged. Non-fossil energy (hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, biomass) now accounts for over 33% of total installed capacity and 25.6% of total electricity consumption.
However, while electricity is a major part of overall energy consumption in China, it is by no means representative of the whole pie. There is a very large amount of direct fuel combustion (oil, gas, coal) in China’s industry as well as its residential and commercial buildings. So, while non-fossil energy is 25% of China’s electricity production, it is only 10% of China’s overall energy production…or 4% actually. It all depends on how you account for energy. China uses a different methodology from other international conventions used by IPCC, IEA, and EIA (which all each have their own nuances).
China has long done its energy statistics and accounting in million tons of coal equivalent (I know because I was one of the main editors of the China Energy Databook once). Historically, and still today, coal accounts for the lion’s share of energy production in China. When alternative forms of electricity generation (hydropower) were first introduced in China, they were seen as a way to reduce reliance on coal. Therefore, they were accounted for in terms of the amount of coal that would have been burned to produce an equivalent amount of electricity. Since coal power plants are, say, 33% efficient (that is, they produce 1 kWh of electricity for every 3 kWh of coal burned in the initial combustion), this means that 1 kWh of hydropower electricity will actually count as 3 kWh of electricity on the books, according to China’s “power plant coal consumption method”. The details of the differences in accounting will be released in a forthcoming publication by LBL’s China Energy Group.
All in all, it means that while China is surpassing 10% non-fossil energy production by its accounting methods, this would only be ~4% according to a calorific method, where 1 kWh would be 1 kWh regardless if it was hydro electricity or coal electricity. This is a sobering fact, in light of China’s recent progress in renewable energy, but one that the world (and the media) needs to understand. China’s non-fossil energy contributions are so very big, yet so very small at the same time! While China adds dozens of gigawatts of renewable, hydro, and nuclear capacity each year (and is a world leader in this regard), the overall contribution to China’s energy pie is still just creeping along by a few tenths of a percent per year.