This U.S. Lab Just Agreed To Help China Use Even More Renewable Energy

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Wong

China's electricity grid could be an American science lab's new ground for experiment.

Leaders from U.S. and Chinese cities, along with Vice President Joe Biden and a special representative from China, gathered in Los Angeles this week to announce new commitments and targets for meeting carbon emission goals. Unsurprisingly, the event didn’t warrant a mention in Wednesday’s debate, where candidates only denounced diplomacy with China.

The new targets are part of the bigger U.S.-China partnership on climate, which Republican leaders have ridiculed for not requiring action from China. But one announcement made at the U.S.-China Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities Summit points to real, tangible declines in China’s emissions, while offering U.S. scientists an opportunity to study the world’s biggest electrical grid.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a Department of Energy project, will be working with China’s Energy Research Institute, part of State Grid of China, the largest utility in the world and seventh on the Fortune Global 500 list, to study and improve China’s electricity grid.

The partnership grew out of a Chinese initiative, after State Grid’s chairman approached NREL last year to kick off the relationship, John Barnett, manager of NREL’s International Program, told ThinkProgress.

“The head of this enormous utility is thinking beyond the present,” Barnett said. “The air quality issues in China — and many other countries — have gotten more and more attention, and there is pressure on the utility to design a progression to a less polluting grid.”

That means decreasing China’s use of coal, and increasing its use of renewables. “They are planning massive deployments, especially of solar and wind,” Barnett said.

NREL’s agreement with State Grid focuses on three key areas, Barnett said: power system planning and operation support, energy systems integration, and market design. On the U.S. side, the research lab will have access to huge amounts of data as China changes how its electricity is produced, transmitted, and used.

China is the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases, and a large portion comes from burning coal for electricity. For reference, an 8 percent reduction in coal use over the first four months of the year resulted in a nearly 5 percent drop in the country’s overall carbon emissions — equal to the total amount emitted in Great Britain over the same time period.

The sheer scale of the electricity grid in China offers unique opportunities, for deployment of green technologies and for research. One Chinese solar company predicts that China will install 17.8 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity this year. The United States just passed the 20 GW milestone for all installations.

This growth is possible because China has roughly 1.3 billion people — all of whom have access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

“China has enormous deployment of renewables,” Barnett said. Data on what works and what doesn’t will help inform U.S. policymakers as renewable energy deployment increases here. The United States gets about 7 percent of its electricity from renewable resources such as wind and solar.

“At present, this seems like a good opportunity to work with this enormous utility that says it wants to greatly reduce its carbon emissions, which we see as in our national interests and global interests,” Barnett said.

Addressing climate change has been a key priority for the Obama administration, both at home and abroad. The recently released Clean Power Plan, which limits acceptable amounts of carbon emitted from power plants, is one way the administration is seeking to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and meet its international commitments, especially in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

Naysayers, including Republican congressional leadership and presidential candidates, contend that American action will not only have negative economic impacts, but also that it is fruitless without action from other countries. While the economic impacts of the Clean Power Plan and other mechanisms deployed to reduce carbon are highly debatable, it is certainly true that, as a worldwide issue, other major carbon emitters need to reduce their impact to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

“If you look at global carbon emissions, if China — and, say, India — don’t succeed in transitioning to clean energy, their carbon emissions will swamp whatever everyone else does,” Barnett said.

But, it seems, China is making significant steps forward. Last December, presidents Xi and Obama announced a climate pledge, which calls for the United States to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 level in 2025 and for China to a peak CO2 emissions by or before 2030 and get 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2030. In 2014, China’s carbon emissions went down for the first time in history.

“The biggest chunk [of reduction] was in the power sector,” David Sandalow, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former official at the Department of Energy, told ThinkProgress. “The power sector is — ballpark — 70 percent coal or 80 percent coal, and coal use has been declining.”

In addition to huge investments in wind, solar, and transmission, half of the nuclear plants under construction in the world are in China, he said.

But while research and deployment projects bode well for China’s transition to renewable energy, it’s unclear how far the partnership will reach. State Grid’s chairman is pushing for a globally integrated grid — but security issues might stand in the way of that (admittedly, far-off) plan.

“One potential constraint on the U.S. and Chinese cooperation with respect to smart grid technology is cyber security issues,” Sandalow said. “The cyber security issue has become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, tension in the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China.”

Obama is expected to address cyber security issues when Xi visits Washington, D.C. later this month.