Is China Beating the US in Renewables?

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chinese city skyline for an article about renewable energy between us and china

Over the past few decades, China has increased its renewable energy program dramatically. Impact: China now leads the world in renewable energy production and renewable energy production technology. 

Historically, China has not led the charge in renewable energy, holding some of the world’s most polluted cities. So, what changed? Why is China now at the forefront of renewable energy production? We’ll explore how China might be outpacing the United States in renewable energy and what to expect from them in the future. 

The World’s Biggest Energy Consumer Steps Up 

Beijing is infamous for having some of the worst air quality in the world. This is due to the massive industry, expansive population, and rampant energy consumption within the city. During the ’80s and ’90s, China increased its energy consumption exponentially, leading to seemingly endless smog, poor breathability in the air, and low visibility around the city. 

In the mid-2000s, China began investing in renewable energy projects to transition away from fossil fuels and energy resources, which are said to contribute to the poor air conditions in Beijing and other Chinese cities. The program expanded dramatically in the next decade, pushing China to become a world leader in renewable energy technology and producing sustainable energy facilities. 

When the Chinese government began focusing on renewable energy production, it drastically lowered the cost of solar and wind technology worldwide. This significant turn in Chinese energy focus directly correlates to increasing renewable energy worldwide. Because China could produce relatively inexpensive renewable energy technology, the market opened around the world, driving a surge in solar and wind power production.

In 2020, the Chinese president announced a plan to reach a net zero emissions goal. Since then, Chinese renewable energy facilities have exploded across the Chinese nation. With the COP28 conference happening in late 2023, the world will be watching to see if China continues on its renewable energy path. 

Relevance of Chinese Renewable Energy

Chinese renewable energy production is critical to global energy migration and the world market. China produces massive amounts of renewable energy for its own nation and is also the leading solar technology manufacturer, accommodating over 80% of the world’s solar panel production

So, China is uniquely positioned and pivotal to supplying the world’s renewable energy technology. With the Asian nations producing an overwhelming majority of renewable energy technology, the country dominates the market. 

China’s production majority has two distinct results. First, there are lower costs for renewable energy technology supply. China’s ability to rapidly produce solar panels, wind turbines, and other tech lowers the price worldwide. 

The second outcome of China’s rapid renewable energy production program is other nation’s inability to keep up. Put simply, China can produce a greater volume of tech faster than other nations, placing them as a kingpin in renewable energy technology production. Concerned energy consumers around the world take umbrage with China’s position of power when it comes to energy. 

How China Produced Rapid Renewable Energy Growth

The mounting pressure on China to do more about emissions came to a head in 2015 when China agreed to sign the Paris Agreement. This pivotal turn led to an incredible boost to China’s renewable energy program, which is expanding rapidly thanks to government support, expansive human resources, and excessive financial support. With Chinese manufacturing being some of the most prolific in the world, building renewable energy production came naturally to the manufacturing nations. 

China’s Outpacing US in Energy Consumption

One of China’s primary motivators for rapidly expanding its renewable energy program is the incredible energy consumption within the Asian country. SPG Global estimates China’s energy consumption rows 3.6% in 2022 for a total of 8,637 terawatts per hour. China’s increase in energy consumption is surprisingly lower than the previous year, where it rose 10.3%. Even still, the amount of energy China consumes far outstrips even that of the United States. 

When compared to the United States’ electricity consumption, which totaled 4,050 terawatts per hour, China’s consumption is more than double. These are staggering energy consumption comparisons. 

Historically, China has relied on other nations to import oil,  liquefied Natural Gas (LGN), and additional energy-producing resources. This is due to the sheer energy demand. With a population of over 1.4 billion, China needs unfathomable amounts of electricity for its residents, businesses, and government facilities. 

With such a hefty need for energy, China’s movement towards renewable energy could turn the tide for the global energy transition. Still, China currently only produces approximately 30% of the energy it consumes through renewable methods. Fossil fuels, mainly coal, produce the other 70%.

Challenges to Renewable Energy, Here and There

Like everywhere, China faces significant challenges to its renewable energy program. The adoption of renewable energy is fraud with hurdles and detours. While China has made significant leaps and bounds in its renewable energy infrastructure, it has endured some major obstacles to get there.

The first significant hurdle China faces is not unique to their region: space. Unlike traditional power plants, wind farms, solar facilities, and other renewable energy harvesting facilities must be spread wide across a vast landscape. Building such infrastructure requires a significantly larger footprint than the relatively compact facilities of the past. With several Chinese cities being major metropolitans packed with people and buildings, finding space to build renewable energy infrastructure has proven challenging. 

One of the most logical places in China to build such infrastructure is within the Gobi desert. The Chinese government has built an incredible array of solar and wind power bases in the Gobi Desert, capitalizing on the vast open space and abundant natural sunlight. With plans to bring this facility to 1200 GW by the end of 2030, China plans to double its current level of wind and solar energy nearly. 

As a direct result of the first challenge to Chinese renewable energy, open spaces are often in remote locations. While there may be enough space in these remote areas, transporting the captured energy back to the consumer creates additional logistics and incurs exorbitant transportation costs. Transporting energy over great distances has long been a particular incumbrance of renewable energy plants, as many of them are located in off-grid areas.

Of course, one of the major challenges faced by any renewable energy investor is the initial cost of building the infrastructure itself. While traditional power plants could be made relatively inexpensively, new technology has always come at a premium. Establishing long-term renewable energy facilities takes a whole bunch of cash. Although the Chinese government has rapidly expanded its renewable energy program, it has shelled out billions to do so. 

Like any industrial endeavor, building renewable energy power plants must strike the balance of economic and beneficial to be worth the investment. 

The integration of renewable energy into an existing grid can prove challenging itself. China is one of the largest energy consumers in the world, and transitioning to renewable power sources cannot be an easy undertaking. With the updates to technology, geographical challenges, and cost-effectiveness, moving the Asian superpower to net zero emissions by the year 2060 could be extremely difficult. 

Will China Be Net-Zero By 2060? 

Although China’s president, Xi Jinping, has pledged to pique carbon emissions within this decade and bring China to a net zero emissions rating by the year 2060, this goal seems lofty and largely unachievable. 

Several factors are working against China’s ambitious goal of carbon emission neutrality. First, no country in the world has achieved such a monumental undertaking in carbon emissions. Any nation’s transition to clean energy takes time, resources, and tremendous effort. Taking into consideration China’s size and energy consumption, the task of achieving carbon neutrality increases tenfold. 

Is China Overstepping?

However, the Chinese government has rapidly expanded its grip, increased its infrastructure, and produced impeccable supply lines. In a short time, China has positioned itself to become a critical supplier of renewable energy, not just for itself but for the global energy market. 

Furthermore, as the world’s largest manufacturing nation, China is uniquely poised to Force the rest of the world into a perhaps uncomfortable dependence on its manufacturing and energy supply. 

According to the International Energy Association (IEA), China produces the most electric vehicles globally. With the global push towards EVs, the Chinese government has cleverly inserted itself into a linchpin position that many may be reluctant to admit. 

What China plans to do by the end of the decade could define the future direction the world energy market takes. Energy producers and consumers in the West must decide how to respond to China’s rapid increase in renewable energy and green product manufacturing. 

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