Why China continues to invest in coal – despite beating renewable energy targets

China’s coal fired power plants are not always as ugly as you might think.
Some are set in locations surrounded by green hills and lush farmland, thick chimneys are euphemistically painted with blue skies and bucolic scenes.

But China’s addiction to coal is still a dirty business and it’s the locals who bear the brunt.
In Huangxi village in southern Guangdong province, they live in the shadow of one such plant.
The road leading to the coal yard is a constant stream of trucks loaded with the dusty black fuel.

Clouds of soot hang thick in the air, those who can afford to leave have long upped and left.
Chen Yingwen is in her 60s and has lived here all her life. She invites us inside her home and shows us the soot that coats her life.

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“It gets dirty soon after it’s cleaned,” she explains, wiping a tissue along a window frame. “Look, just one wipe and so much dust.”
From the roof of her building, she has a clear view of the plant and explains how it’s changed lives here.


“When it rains, the dirty water flows everywhere, covering the vegetables, making them inedible,” she says. “The dust is so heavy, but what can we do? We complained and it was no use.”
It’s widely accepted that without action from China, achieving global climate goals will be impossible. It accounts for 27% of global carbon dioxide emissions and a third of the world’s greenhouse gases, according to the World Bank.
China has pledged to move away from its use of coal and has said it will peak emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060.

Image: The impact on plants is clear
But despite these pledges, the coal plant in Huangxi is one of many that has actually been expanded recently.
In fact, according to analysis of government documents carried out by Greenpeace, China commissioned more new coal-fired power projects in the first three months of 2023 than it did in the whole of 2021.
Guangdong province green-lighted more than anywhere else.
Vulnerable to climate shocks
A little further up the coast, the city of Dongguan offers a glimpse as to why.
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Across hundreds of suburban streets, small-scale manufacturers are hard at work. In tiny workshops, family businesses sew clothes, saw wood and weld metal.
Guangdong is a manufacturing hub with a high population and high energy needs.
But its warm climate has also left it vulnerable to climate shocks. The extreme heatwaves seen in 2021 and 2022 brought droughts which, in turn, brought power cuts.
Experts believe this played a decisive role in the commissioning of so many new coal projects; ‘energy security’ is a phrase increasingly deployed.
But not everyone is against it.

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“It’s a good thing, right?” says manufacturer Zhen Haiming, when asked about the new coal projects. “It means electricity demand is met.”
He runs a small business making aluminium and steel parts and says power cuts cost him money.
“For us manufacturers, as long as the machines don’t shut down, it’s definitely a good thing.”
Most of China’s coal is mined miles away from Guangdong, in the cold provinces of the north.
But these regions also reveal the dichotomy of China’s relationship with its energy.
China’s investment in renewables has a catch
Coal might hail from here, but so too does vast investment in renewables.
Indeed, on this, China is the undisputed world leader. It has smashed its own targets well ahead of schedule and is widely accepted to have left the rest of the world trailing.
In fact, over 50% of China’s energy capacity is now green, more than enough to cover every household in this vast country.
In the windy planes of the north, wind turbines are everywhere you look.

Image: Wind turbines are commonplace in parts of China
But capacity is not the same as consumption.
In 2022, only 14% of the energy China actually used was from wind and solar, 56% still came from coal.
So why then, given its sheer dominance in renewables, is there still such a reliance on this fossil fuel?
Well, the answer lies largely in the infrastructure and in geographical challenges faced by China and other larger countries that are also trying to manage the energy transition.
Firstly, there are issues with the power grid. Despite relatively high levels of investment, it is old-fashioned and its vast regions are not joined up.

Green energy made in China’s more sparsely populated north physically cannot be transported to the south, where needs are higher. It explains why southern provinces are still rushing to build more power plants.
The other challenge lies in a need for green energy storage solutions, which many say is the key to maximising the potential of renewables.
Envision Energy is a global company that specialises in exactly this type of green technology and sells it around the world.

Image: More coal plants are being made in China
“Wind power generation has this nature of fluctuation,” explains Zou Chenling, as he shows us around a plant, with the wind sometimes blowing harder than at other times.
“But the power requirements from factories, they need very light, very reliable and very safe supply of the electricity.
“So that’s why we need this storage system to make it possible to make our supply more reliable and more safe.”
Challenges around the world
At this facility in Inner Mongolia, the energy generated from turbines is stored and then released directly to the power grid when there is demand, none is wasted.
There is a real sense of optimism here, but an acknowledgement too that there is still some way to go.
“Do we still need to build many more storage systems in China?” Zou adds. “Yes, I think yes.”
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This is, in part, because storage technology is newer than the renewables it supports.
“The rate of demand for energy storage is now even faster than that of the new energy,” explains Qian Zhenhua, the chief engineer at Envision Energy Storage Products, but “the gap is still relatively large”.
“The real challenge for us in global deployment is the local legal and regulatory requirements, the certification requirements, and the local grid integration requirements.”
China is not alone in these challenges. The US, for instance, also has an energy grid that is fragmented and inefficient. Many other countries have the capacity to make far more renewable energy than they are using.
But the sheer scale of China and its emissions means it will likely be the focus of attention during the COP28 summit.
The problem is that the investment needed is huge and it comes with political risks.
For now, fossil fuels remain the easier option.

Source : Sky News