China’s Wind Power Production Increased More Than Coal Power Did For First Time Ever In 2012

By Li Shuo

Amid all the news about coal and pollution problems in China you might have missed this one: According to new statistics from the China Electricity Council, China’s wind power production actually increased more than coal power production for the first time ever in 2012.

Thermal power use, which is predominantly coal, grew by only about 0.3 percent in China during 2012, an addition of roughly 12 terawatt hours (TWh) more electricity. In contrast, wind power production expanded by about 26 TWh. This rapid expansion brings the total amount of wind power production in China to 100 TWh, surpassing China’s 98 TWh of nuclear power. The biggest increase, however, occurred in hydro power, where output grew by 196 TWh, bringing total hydro production to 864 TWh, due favorable conditions for hydro last year and increased hydro capacity. In addition, the growth of power consumption slowed down — in Chinese terms a modest increase of 5.5 percent — influenced by slower economic growth, and possibly the energy use targets for provinces set by the Chinese central government.

Coal still accounts for 79 percent of electricity production in China, but fortunately that dominance is increasingly challenged by competition from cleaner energy, as well as government policies and public concerns about air pollution. The Chinese government’s 12th five year energy plan (2011-2015) aims for coal to be reduced from 70 percent to 65 percent of energy production by 2015. In contrast, the Chinese government has ambitious targets for wind, solar, and hydro, and plans to increase the share of non-fossil fuels to 30 percent of installed electricity generating capacity by the end of 2015.

Expansion of the coal industry does not have many friends in China anymore. Major increases of coal power in recent years have created not only record climate emissions, but an unprecedented problem of air pollution and water overuse, triggering increased concern among the Chinese urban population and the central government. The record air pollution in January this year has changed the discussion about coal, and now prominent policymakers and opinion leaders, even vice-ministers, call for capping coal use, especially in the eastern populated and industrial areas of China. The air quality targets the government set for 2016 will require cutting coal pollution. Already last year the government set new strict standards for coal power emissions, requiring costly investments in filters. This year the government set new water use targets for provinces, which do not give much room for increased use of water for coal use in key provinces. Now the discussion is around controlling the total consumption of coal, in addition to emissions trading and resource taxes. The coal industry is surrounded by challenges.

There is another, very sobering side to the story, though: additions to coal power capacity, even if they have been slowing down in recent years, still stood at 50 GW last year, even more than investments in wind. So it seems that some of the total coal capacity was not used last year, due to higher coal and transport costs, and increased costs of environmental protection. The economic slowdown, and slowing growth of electricity use, has forced coal to compete with cheaper hydro and even wind. Companies will push to use that new coal capacity this year, so coal power could see some more growth this year than in 2012, unless there are strong mechanisms to cap the growth.

So while some of the conditions that helped new wind power production pass coal may not repeat this year, it is also clear that the coal industry will continue to be challenged and undermined by clean energy and by China’s new policy priorities to address the air pollution crisis.

Li Shuo is a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, Beijing.


29 Responses to China’s Wind Power Production Increased More Than Coal Power Did For First Time Ever In 2012

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Thank you, Li. As you know, plateauing coal power is nowhere near what needs to happen if we’re serious about slowing global warming. And while coal has few friends in China, the ones it does have are wealthy and powerful. We have the same problem with our fossil fuel companies here in the US.

    Question for Li: Do you see a scenario where China and the US would mutually agree to suspend new coal plant construction and set targets to close existing ones? Nothing else is going to put much of a dent in our very serious emissions problems.

  2. BobbyL says:

    More sobering stuff. The World Resources Institute has identified 1,200 coal plants in planning across 59 countries, with about three-quarters in China and India.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    As I tell people constantly, never forget Rule 0: It’s the greenhouse gases, stupid!

    The atmosphere and the environment respond to the amount of ghg we pump out. They neither know nor care about human concerns like carbon intensity or why or how or by whom any given gram of CO2 was emitted.

    Yes, we have to find our way through the obstacle course of politics, economics, psychology, international relations, etc. to reduce our emissions, but we can’t forget for a second that all those interconnected challenges are prerequisites that we must conquer before we can do what really matters, and that’s cut our emissions by enough to make a meaningful difference.

  4. Brooks Bridges says:

    Meanwhile, from India, a solar power success story. It shows how incredibly effective small scale solar can be in undeveloped areas:

    “India’s villagers reap visible benefits from solar electricity scheme

    Energy NGO Teri has revolutionized 500,000 lives through a scheme that uses solar LED lanterns to provide cheap power”

  5. Turboblocke says:

    That story dates from November last year. Is it still accurate?

  6. BobbyL says:

    The most recent report I could find is an International Energy Agency report from December 2012 that basically confirms the other report. They say “Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to rise, and by 2017 coal will come close to surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source.” /name,34441,en.html The report should be required reading for anyone getting giddy about gains in solar and wind.

  7. Sasparilla says:

    So they expanded Wind by 26TWh, does anyone have a feel for what that is in comparison to the U.S. adding ~10,600 MW of wind last year?

    Nice to see the Chinese ramping their renewable installations up at a rapid rate, hopefully they’ll keep that accelerating…and nice to see Wind in particular after such a good year in the U.S. as well, it has really been hitting on all cylinders (maturing?).

    We, of course, have an almost unimaginable long way to go, but getting costs down and production up while we wait on the nitwits is a very important thing to have happen – and its happening, thank goodness.

  8. addicted says:

    And as India found out with “CoalGate”, these are being driven by little more than corruption and bribery.

    Existing coal plants in India are running below capacity because they cannot procure enough coal. And they are selling electricity at higher costs than promised because the coal they do acquire is far too expensive.

    So now the coal companies’ next steps are too destroy millenia old forests to mine for coal beneath them.

    It is beyond insanity for India to be pushing for non-renewables when we have such great renewable resources (tropical sun, lots of windy shores, huge sunny desert in the NW). We also dont have a grid infrastructure, which is necessary for most non-renewable sources of electricity, and we can simply skip those costs by setting up micro-grids driven by renewables which can be connected to each other over time to add resiliency (resiliency isnt an issue at the moment, because outside of maybe Mumbai, every city already experiences extensive blackouts, assuming they receive electricity to begin with).

  9. Very true.

    China’s 650+ gigawatts of coal energy capacity is an ongoing nightmare. And though it’s encouraging to see some competition eating into coal growth, what we need is a rapid dwindling of coal use in China.

    I guess the positive we can take away from this is that wind is now a viable, competitive alternative — which makes the arguments of your aptly named nitwits all the less valid. But, in my view, we’ll need policy if there’s much hope to get the kind of reductions we need for a stable climate. The nitwits, it seems, are going to kick and scream as much as possible to prevent the needed changes.

  10. Giddy, no. Cautiously optimistic, yes.

    Wind and solar compete with coal and gas in an ever expanding number of markets. But kicking out the entrenched fossil fuel special interests will likely require strong policy measures in addition.

    And, yes, coal continues to expand thanks, in large part, to the World Bank…

  11. BobbyL says:

    When the Chinese build wind farms they also tend to build coal-burning plants as a back-up source of energy because wind is an intermittent source. So basically, the more wind farms are built the more coal-burning plants are built. Therefore, I don’t think wind has reached the point in China where one could call it a true alternative.

  12. “So they expanded Wind by 26TWh, does anyone have a feel for what that is in comparison to the U.S. adding ~10,600 MW of wind last year?”

    Depends on what one assumes the capacity factor to be which can span 20 to 50 percent. According to DOE, the capacity factor achieved by new wind turbines in 2010 reached almost 40%. So, the 10,600 MW at 40% would generate 37 TWh, while at 30% would generate 28 TWh.

  13. A 2009 joint assessment by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Tsinghua University’s Department of Environmental Science and Engineering concluded that China’s favorable onshore wind resources could provide nearly 25,000 TWh of electricity annually, more than five times national consumption in 2012. The team also made a key point, “[A]ssuming a guaranteed price of 0.516 Yuan (7.6 U.S. cents) per kWh for delivery of electricity to the grid over an agreed initial average period of 10 years, wind could accommodate all the demand for electricity projected for 2030, about twice current consumption.” [source: Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity in China, Michael B. McElroy, Xi Lu, Chris P. Nielsen, Yuxuan Wang, Science 325, 1378 (2009)].
    China established feed-in tariff payments for wind power in 2009. China is developing different FIT rates depending on local resource conditions. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) set four categories of onshore wind projects.
    Areas with better wind resources get lower feed-in tariffs, while those with lower outputs will be able to access higher tariffs. The wind power tariffs per kWh are set between US$0.082 (0.51 Yuan) and US$0.098 (0.61 Yuan). For comparison, the average rate paid to coal-fired electricity
    generators is US$0.055 per kWh (0.34 Yuan).
    China is projected to shatter the govt’s 2015 target of 100,000 MW by 50 percent. China has been consistently exceeding its wind growth targets, so it is quite feasible their ambitious targets for 2020 (200,000 MW), 2030 (400,000 MW) and 2050 (1 million MW) will all occur much sooner.

  14. fj says:

    The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a long detailed article a few years ago about the low cost of China to respond to climate change.

    We likely see a lot more of this as governance by the fossil fuel industry costs Americans more and more.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Quoting the Wall Street Journal does not increase your credibility, I fear.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The good old ‘Washington Consensus’ at work.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They’re not just destroying the forests, they are destroying the people and communities that live in them. India is heading for a train-wreck, because its elites are corrupt. rapacious and clueless, since they threw in their lot with neo-liberalism and the West.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    How encouraging to see US and Chinese academics co-operating, sans ideological and geo-political baggage, in such a very good cause, with staggering possibilities to do good. Let’s hope that no politician tries to stick his nose in.

  19. Sasparilla says:


  20. Sasparilla says:

    Thanks for that Michael, so it appears, back of the envelope that China probably installed somewhat less than the U.S. did last year – probably will beat us in 2013.

  21. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Are they really prerequisites Lou or can we all just get on with adequate reductions and bugger the obstacles? I have been impressed by the speed with which the noise quietened down as soon as our carbon price was implemented, ME

  22. Hiren Shah says:

    Thisis the Win-Win Situation between Earth and Sky.

  23. BobbyL says:

    If you can dispute the facts go ahead. I think this is a good story and they apparently broke it. I don’t have a problem with news sources publishing what is really going on in China. It is not like China has a free press or anything. I can’t find the story at a “more acceptable” web site, sorry.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Bobby, sorry to offend. I regard the WSJ as sub-toilet usage, so I jumped to contusions. Sure, it may be true, but it reeks of Murdochite disinformation. By the by, just check out some Chinese web-sites. You will find that, apart from rank subversive stuff arguing for the overthrow of the current system, that there is considerable freedom and diversity of discourse and opinion there. Certainly more than in the Western MSM.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That knotty chap in the picture has to have been born on a Saturday.

  26. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Echo Mulga. We need more of this and less beligerent and military posturing. We all know what has to be done and anybody who thinks the Chinese don’t take this seriously has rocks in their head, ME

  27. Merrelyn Emery says:

    And in the oceans, 70% + of Earth. I am a person born in and part of the desert lands but I know this is a watery planet and in my little bit of desert, you had only to scratch the surface of the sand to find sea shells. We can do it together, if we can come to see ourselves as Earthlings, inhabitants of planet Earth, not as nationalities or individuals who OWN anything but just as people who know we belong to a life giving environment. We have only one choice, ME

  28. fj says:

    Just as we teamed with Europe to eradicate the devastation of World War II, teaming with China to eradicate poverty and create a carbon zero civilization would be the first major milestone eradicating the demons that have long haunted humanity’s advance and suppressed our unimaginable potential.

  29. BobbyL says:

    By free press I was referring mainly to publications that have reporters who actually go out into the world to find news stories, not just people who sit at computers expressing their opinions. I believe the only newspapers in China that could be considered part of the free press are those in Hong Kong, which the government has so far left alone. Obviously it is dangerous in China to express certain opinions on websites as many bloggers have been arrested. Some good news out of China is that they are thinking about closing down their labor prisons which have remained in use since the days of Chairman Mao. I am not a fan of the Wall Street Journal but that is such an interesting article since we never envision coal plants being built to accompany wind farms. I don’t think anyone can successfully fight global warming using that strategy.