China forays into future on renewables

With policy support, innovation and strong investment the country has become a pacemaker. Hou Liqiang reports

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A wind turbine is assembled on an offshore platform in Fujian province in June. LIN SHANCHUAN / XINHUA
A wind turbine is assembled on an offshore platform in Fujian province in June. LIN SHANCHUAN / XINHUA

Published: Mon 11 Dec 2023, 11:11 AM

More than 40 years ago, lacking the necessary technology and research and development capabilities, China was confined to manufacturing micro turbines for off-grid power generation.

In stark contrast, news about the great strides the country has made in developing wind power has gained a lot of attention in recent years. In February last year a 13-megawatt o˜ shore wind turbine, which had the largest single-unit capacity in Asia at the time, rolled off a production line in Fujian province.

Only nine months later the plant was dwarfed by a 16-MW offshore wind turbine assembled in Fujian and that led the world in terms of single-unit capacity. In June a 20-MW wind turbine made in Shandong province set another record.

The contrast is indicative of the significant progress China has made in developing renewable energy, becoming a leader in the field, and this has helped greatly cut the cost of renewables, experts said. This success has not come easily, but China has accumulated vast experience that is instructive to others, developing countries in particular, in promoting energy transition on a large scale, they said. Consistent and comprehensive policy support and the great importance attached to capacity building and production standards are among the things that have helped China top the world in renewables, they said. According to the National Energy Administration, the total capacity of grid-connected wind turbines in China stood at just 1.06 million kilowatts in 2005, and by the end of last year capacity was 365 million KW. In that time the country’s combined installed capacity for photovoltaic power rose from 70,000 KW to 392 million KW. Its proportion of the global total rose from less than 1.4 per cent to more than 33 per cent. By the end of June installed capacity of renewable energy in China had exceeded 1.3 billion KW, surpassing the installed capacity of coal-fired power for the first time. The development of large-scale renewable energy in China has significantly brought down the global cost of renewables, said Wang Weiquan, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association. Thanks to China’s contribution, the cost of photovoltaic power generation is now as low as 1 cent for 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity in the Middle East, where the costs of land use and financing are relatively low, he said.

Wang attributed the remarkable achievement to consistent, systematic and tailor-made policies adopted at different stages of development. Driven by these policies, a broad market for renewable energy development was formed. This then boosted the development of upstream manufacturing industries and the entire industry chain, he said, citing the subsidised price for renewable energy, or the feed-in tariff, as an example.

The feed-in tariff, a surcharge on electricity bills, guaranteed solar and wind companies above-market prices for their energy, which helped attract many investors to the sector, he said. China also introduced a dedicated renewable energy law in 2005, has incorporated renewable energy development into its five-year plans since 1996, and has established a sound mechanism to guarantee the absorption of newly added renewable energy output, Wang said.

The country also set up the Renewable Energy Development Fund to support development of the sector.

Hou Yuhan, group marketing director of Goldwind Science and Technology, a Chinese wind turbine manufacturer, underscored the importance of “continuity, stability and sustainability” in the country’s policies for developing the wind energy sector.

“Since the 1990s China’s central and regional governments have introduced a slew of policies concerning the renewable energy sector, creating a stable policy environment and favourable conditions for wind energy development.”

The introduction of China’s dual-carbon targets in 2020 and the national policy framework to implement the goals “have propelled the renewable energy sector to a key development stage”, she said.

In 2020 China announced that it aimed to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and realise carbon neutrality before 2060. The country has adopted a raft of new policies to guide the energy transition, and these have given priority to green, low-carbon energy development, scientific and technological innovation, institutional innovation, regulatory efficiency and international co-operation, Hou said.

Du Zhongming, president of the China Electric Power Planning and Engineering Institute, said China has dynamically adjusted its policies concerning renewable energy. As technology develops and economic efficiency improves in the renewable energy sector, for instance, the subsidies for renewable energy in China were gradually reduced, he said. After six adjustments to the subsidies for wind power and eight for solar PV power, he said, the on-grid power tariffs of these two types of renewable energy equal those of coal-ÿ red power.

The feed-in tariff has played a role in “giving a leg up” to the wind and solar PV power sectors to get them going, he said.

On January 1, 2021, China ended feed-in tariffs for new solar and onshore wind projects that had been in place for more than 10 years. Before halting the tariffs, China introduced a mechanism in 2019 to guarantee consumption of renewable energy, setting minimum levels of regional consumption.

Wang of the renewable energy industries association underlined the importance of a complete national standards system and international collaboration in developing a robust renewable energy industry in China. China has adopted many standards that cover not only manufacturing, but also the construction and operation of power farms, which guarantee the long-term and sustainable development of the sector and have helped reduce costs, Wang said. In the early stages of China’s developing renewable energy, the country, then a global laggard in this regard, engaged heavily in bilateral and multilateral collaboration, Wang said. A series of demonstration projects was implemented thanks to aid from international organisations and leading countries in wind power development, he said.

China improved its capacity building from such collaboration, and many talented people, including policymakers, business people and skilled workers, were developed, Wang said. Many senior executives now at leading solar and wind power companies in China took part in training programmes during this collaborative period, he said.

International companies also invested in China, and these investments were mutually beneficial, he said. While those companies made profits in China, it managed to master the technologies it needed to develop the industry.

“The development of China’s wind power industry has been closely linked to the wind power technology acquired through international collaboration,” Hou of Goldwind said.

Xinhua contributed to this story.

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