China is trying to have it all. As China develops the future of its energy and industrial landscapes through sweeping programs like the Belt and Road Initiatives and increasingly ambitious five-year plans and climate targets, President Xi Jinping’s administration is performing an increasingly intricate tightrope walk between trying to position Beijing at the forefront of the global clean energy industry and shoring up Chinese energy security by any means necessary – be it clean or coal. China is both the world’s biggest investor in renewable energies and responsible for half of global coal consumption. In fact, despite President Xi’s rhetoric about China’s dedication to decarbonization, Beijing’s priorities clearly lie with energy security and economic growth first and foremost. In the end, every move China makes concerning its energy sector is about propping up Chinese energy independence and weaning the country off of its dependence on foreign fuel imports. The struggle between decarbonization and energy and economic stability are not unique to China by any means. As global supply chains have remained muddied by ongoing fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and economic sanctions against Russia in response to the war in Ukraine, countries across the globe have turned to coal to keep the lights on.
While most of those governments that have returned to coal frame it as an anomalous and temporary emergency response, the coal renaissance could be a frightening harbinger of things to come. Continued economic uncertainties, conflicts, and energy sector volatility are almost as certain as the looming threat of global warming. If the world returns to coal every time the rapidly evolving energy industry experiences growing pains or Putin threatens global democracy, the world has no hope of meeting its decarbonization goals in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
In one Chinese province, this global challenge is playing out on a much smaller scale. Shanxi province is China’s major coal producer. Coal mines have been dug under an eighth of the province’s entire surface area, and the coal mining industry shows no sign of slowing. Last year Chinese coal production hit yet another all-time high, growing 4.6 percent year on year as the economy bounced back from the first wave of the pandemic. But there is hope for change in Shanxi; the province which sits at the beating heart of the global coal industry could turn into the nation’s solar mecca as China tries to pivot to position the smoggy province as its energy transition poster child.
Five years ago, a 250-acre panda-shaped solar power plant opened in coal mining hub Datong, and solar capacity in the province has been expanding 63 percent per year ever since. Wind power, too, has been taking off in Shanxi, expanding 24 percent per year. “The striking alternation illustrates Shanxi’s latest role: China has tasked its coal powerhouse with modelling the transition to clean energy,” National Geographic reports. “Besides building out clean energy sources—including in particular the infrastructure to use hydrogen as a fuel—the province is supposed to conduct large-scale tests for upgrading factories and power plants and retraining fossil-fuel workers. In general, it is supposed to figure out, for itself and China, how to rid itself of its reliance on coal.”
Despite China’s best efforts, panda PR and all, coal is still unequivocally king in Shanxi and in the national economy as a whole. Renewables only represent 28% of the country’s national energy mix, and most of that is hydropower, which comes with its own considerable environmental concerns. And then there is the fact that China’s energy demand is still growing. In order for China to keep meeting demand without relying even more on foreign imports, it will have to ramp up every form of domestic energy production. For China, coal capacity can’t yet be replaced by renewable energy – it needs as much of both as it can get.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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