Clean power not always green power

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am

Renewable energy is the buzzword of China's new five-year economic blueprint.

It appears in almost every article in major publications discussing the country's energy and environmental policies for the 12th five-year plan, lasting until 2015.

Analysts say mainland authorities have clearly pinned their hopes on renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydropower, to help reduce the mainland's reliance on coal amid mounting concern over the country's environmental woes and huge carbon emissions.

Details of the new blueprint, subject for approval at the annual session of the National People's Congress next month, have yet to be unveiled.

But senior officials from the National Energy Administration, the country's top energy planning body, have been quoted by Xinhua and other mainland media recently as promising that the renewable energy sector would see a big boost in the coming decade.

Former administration director Zhang Guobao, who retired last month, said renewable energy would account for 11.4 per cent of the country's fuel mix by 2015, up from 9.9 per cent at the end of 2009.

The pledge seems to be in line with a commitment made by President Hu Jintao shortly ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, which put the share of renewable fuels in the total energy mix at 15 per cent by 2020.

Mainland officials even openly discussed the possibility of putting a ceiling on coal production, which remains the biggest energy source for the economy.

'I don't think it is right for us to exhaust the coal reserves as we must leave some room for development for future generations,' Zhang said in the People's Daily.

Coal accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the mainland's primary energy consumption and is also the single largest source of its enormous carbon dioxide emissions, which Beijing admitted last year had overtaken United States greenhouse gas emissions to become the world's largest.

Government-linked think tanks and environmentalists hailed the clean energy drive as a step in the right direction, moving away from an energy-intensive, heavily polluting mode of development which has been blamed for ecological degradation, widespread pollution and rampant heavy metal poisoning.

But they said that despite impressive statistics on clean energy development and ambitious targets set for the next five years, it was simply unrealistic to expect the mainland to shift its heavy reliance on coal to alternative energy any time soon.

Dr Yang Fuqiang, an energy expert at global conservation body WWF, said the switch to renewable energy was a historic opportunity for the mainland to lessen its dependence on coal and improve energy efficiency.

'But it does not mean renewable energy can replace coal as a main source of power generation,' he said. 'Coal will remain the dominant energy source for the decades to come although its share in the total energy mix will be reduced gradually.'

The mainland has made huge efforts over the past few years to boost the renewable energy sector, boasting it has been a key contributor to the global fight against climate change. It became the world's largest wind power generator last year.

Li Junfeng, secretary general of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, said wind power generating capacity grew by more than 60 per cent last year, with the total installed capacity now 41.8GW, surpassing the US.

The mainland has also seen a thriving domestic market for solar power and is the largest supplier of solar cells to the rest of the world.

Despite robust growth and staggering statistics in wind, solar and other alternative energy resources over the past decade, analysts have cautioned against what they have described as the current irrational expansion of the clean energy sector.

Pan Jiahua, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, even called it a 'strategic error' and a huge waste of investment to place too much emphasis on growth of the renewable energy sector.

The mainland had seen the growth of wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower leap ahead under government policy initiatives, but had failed to turn that renewable energy capacity into safe and reliable sources of clean energy, he said.

'Wind power is not stable, it is fairly expensive and China's low electricity tariff, high wind turbine cost and its access to the power grid have become bottlenecks hampering further development,' Pan said.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) said the mainland produces about 30 per cent to 45 per cent of the world's solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, but that more than 90 per cent of its production was exported.

Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said that although solar power generation was pollution-free, the manufacturing process, especially the production of polysilicon used in solar panels, had caused toxic chemical pollution on the mainland.

'The fact that most solar panels are exported shows China remains at the manufacturing end of the global supply chain,' he said. 'If China's new energy drive still follows the old development path, which saw economic growth at the expense of the environment and resources, we have no reason to feel relieved.'

He said the huge environmental cost of development was often excluded in official calculations of the mainland's economic accomplishments and the true cost of coal use had been grossly underestimated.

An incomplete calculation of the environmental costs in 2008 showed that pollution caused nearly 900 billion yuan in economic losses, or 3 per cent of that year's gross domestic product, according to a study publicly known as the Green GDP Project.

Another study, partly commissioned by Greenpeace, showed the mainland's reliance on coal had a shocking hidden price tag.

The true cost of coal in 2007, which took into account environmental and social damage, was about 1.75 trillion yuan, nearly 7.1 per cent of that year's GDP.

But that figure, which counts air and water pollution, ecological degradation, increasing health costs and mining accidents, did not include the impact on climate change.

Ma and other environmentalists have also expressed concerns over Beijing's ambitious plan to increase hydropower capacity by 50 per cent to 300,000 megawatts by 2015, five years earlier than previously planned.

Energy officials like Zhang have said hydropower development must be accelerated to make up for losses in the past five years, during which dam-building came to a virtual halt due to environmental concerns, strong public opposition and international media criticism.

While Zhang described hydropower as a clean energy source and its expansion necessary for the mainland to meet its target of reducing carbon intensity by 40 per cent to 45 per cent by 2020, based on 2005 levels, a senior environmental official recently challenged that assertion.

'To a certain extent, hydropower could cause much more severe pollution than coal-fired power plants,' Ling Jiang, deputy director-general of the pollution control department at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said late last year.

Citing official statistics, Ling admitted that hydropower development not only threatened the ecological balance and increased geological hazards, but had also been plagued by problems associated with huge resettlement schemes.

Weng Lida, former head of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau, also lashed out at national and local economic planning authorities' blind pursuit of hydropower expansion. 'Power companies and planning authorities have apparently gained an upper hand in the debate over hydropower development and used the need to cut carbon emissions and pollution as an excuse to gloss over problems resulting from irrational dam-building across the country,' he said.

Environmentalists said the mounting international pressure on the mainland over its refusal to accept a mandatory cap on carbon emissions should not be used as an excuse to sacrifice the environment.

Zou Ji, a climate expert at the WRI, said the government should learn lessons from the 11th five-year plan and try to shift its focus from mandatory targets to the quality of development and to reforming the energy and pollution control sectors.

'Hitting numerical targets does not mean deep-rooted problems with our system and mindsets have been eliminated as well,' he said.