Column: China’s fast-growing renewables limit coal generation

Excavator loads coal to a train in Pingdingshan
Excavator loads coal to a train in Pingdingshan, Henan province, China November 4, 2021. Picture taken November 4, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song//File Photo

LONDON, Nov 17 (Reuters) - China’s massive deployment of renewable generators is starting to limit its heavy reliance on coal-fired power stations, ensuring the government remains on track to achieve its target of overall emissions peaking before 2030.

Total electricity generation increased by 240 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), or 3.6%, between January and October compared with the same period in 2021, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Reflecting the impact of repeated lockdowns, growth was the slowest since the pandemic in 2020 and before that the broad economic slowdown in 2015 (“Output of energy products”, NBS, Nov. 15).

But zero-emissions sources accounted for almost 74% of the total increase in generation, with thermal generators, overwhelmingly coal, contributing just 26%.

Generation from wind farms increased by 100 billion kWh (22%) compared with the previous year, while output from solar power increased by 45 billion kWh (30%).

There were smaller proportional contributions to growth from thermal generators (63 billion kWh, just 1%), hydro-electric units (28 billion kWh, 3%) and nuclear (4 billion kWh, 1%).

Chartbook: China electricity generation


The massive increase in wind and solar generation is the result of a huge expansion of installed capacity over the last two years.

Wind farm capacity increased 17% while solar capacity increased 29% in the first nine months of 2022, compared with the same period of 2021.

Wind capacity had already increased 33% while solar increased 25% in the first nine months of 2021, compared with 2020.

As a result, wind capacity reached 348 Gigawatts (GW) in September 2022, up from 223 million GW in September 2020, according to the National Energy Administration.

Solar capacity similarly increased to 359 GW in September 2022 from 223 million GW in September 2020 (“National power industry statistics”, NEA, Oct. 21).

In 2021, China accounted for 35% of all wind generation worldwide, almost as much as the United States (21%) and the European Union (21%) combined (“Statistical review of world energy”, BP, 2022).

China is even more dominant in solar generation (32% of the world total) compared with the United States (16%) and the European Union (16%).


Coal remains the dominant source of generation, with thermal mostly coal power plants accounting for 69% of all kilowatt-hours generated in 2021, compared with just 22% in the United States and 15% in the European Union.

But the country’s massive investment in renewables is on the verge of starting to displace coal-fired generation and beginning the long process of relegating it to a reserve role.

If and when the country eventually exits from its zero-COVID policy of repeated lockdowns, electricity consumption will start to grow faster again, increasing demand for both coal and renewable generators.

But continued growth of installed wind and solar capacity, and the potential for utilising generators for more hours each year with better grid integration, imply they are likely to increase their share at the expense of coal.

The government’s strategy of reducing the energy-intensity of gross domestic product and replacing older, smaller and less-efficient coal-fired generators with larger and more efficient units should also curb coal consumption.

Nuclear generation is also set for a major expansion which will boost zero-emission generation further and provide more despatchable power.

In the next few years, more coal generators will move from operating round-the-clock as base load to dual-shifting, or acting as reserves to back up intermittent wind and solar output.

In absolute terms, coal-fired generation is still rising, but the growth rate has halved over the last decade, and coal generation has been growing more slowly than generation as a whole.

As a result, thermal generators have seen their share of total electricity production shrink to 69% this year from 76% in the first ten months of 2014.

On present trends, coal-fired generation is likely to peak in absolute terms within the next five years, contributing to the government’s stated target of peaking emissions from all sources before 2030.

John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own

Editing by Nick Macfie

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John Kemp is a senior market analyst specializing in oil and energy systems. Before joining Reuters in 2008, he was a trading analyst at Sempra Commodities, now part of JPMorgan, and an economic analyst at Oxford Analytica. His interests include all aspects of energy technology, history, diplomacy, derivative markets, risk management, policy and transitions.