China’s energy transition will be powered by coal

Still burning.
Still burning.
Image: Reuters/David Stanway
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China’s energy transition is navigating the tension between the country’s shift to renewables and the challenges of energy security. For China, energy security right now simply means using more coal.

At a May 24 panel discussion at the World Economic Forum at Davos, energy expert Daniel Yergin, vice-chairman of research firm S&P Global, noted that while China’s 14th 5-year plan still makes investment into renewables a cornerstone of China’s climate plan, “energy security is back on the table. The amnesia about energy security has been put aside.”

Energy security is a reference to a country’s need to supply stable, affordable energy to its citizens. As it stands now, the supply of renewable energy in China, as with the rest of the world, falls far short of its economic needs, and the country remains heavily reliant on coal.

China has had a booming last few years for renewable production. In 2021, the country installed more wind power than the rest of the world combined, surpassing its own goals of building renewable energy power. But it has also faced down an energy crisis that caused rolling blackouts across the country last year, shuttering factories and causing lights to flicker off in homes just as last year’s winter was setting in.

China’s short-term answer to the power crunch was to release more coal. When the war in Ukraine further tightened global energy supply, China turned to Russia, buying up record amounts of coal, as Western sanctions kept some of its former customers away.

So a panel on China’s energy transition that discussed various renewable technologies and projects, also segued into one that touched on the topic of “not enough investment in conventional energy,” in Yergin’s words, a concern felt at China’s highest levels. According to climate news outlet Carbon Brief, Chinese president Xi Jinping said that he had instructed his top officials that “major incidents, such as large-scale ‘power outages’ must not be allowed to happen again.”