China is building more than a third of the world’s nuclear reactors currently under construction, and has plans to triple its nuclear power capacity by 2020. That has some observers worried about the country’s opaque and politicized nuclear safety regulations.
But amid all the hype over nuclear power, China has been expanding its wind power capacity at an even faster clip. Last year, China’s wind farms reached a capacity of 115,000 megawatts, compared with just 20,000 megawatts from its nuclear sector. (To be sure, capacity is different than the actual amount of energy created.)
Working at full pace, China’s wind farms could now produce more energy than all of the nuclear power plants in the US.
Despite the government’s ambitious goals to keep developing its nuclear energy capacity, for the foreseeable future, nuclear is unlikely to match wind in China.
After the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan, the Chinese government put the brakes on building nuclear power stations in the west of the country, as this is an area prone to earthquakes. Meanwhile, the north of China famously struggles with a lack of water, something nuclear power stations require plenty of to keep reactors cool, and the east coast, where there is plenty of water, is home to China’s most developed cities, which are increasingly turning to NIMBY-ism.
Beijing says it plans to increase China’s wind power capacity to 200,000 megawatts by 2020, but its own figures see nuclear rising to just 58,000 megawatts in the same time frame.
It’s encouraging to think that wind power may be a leap-frog technology in China, skipping over the potentially messy and dangerous issues related to nuclear power. But wishing nuclear away could be unwise, and most of China’s massive—and growing—energy needs are still met by burning coal. If barriers to nuclear persist, the energy gap will likely be plugged by more fossil-fuel power plants, which would render the cleanliness of China’s wind farms academic.