Green China? It Leads the World in Adding Renewable Electricity

Power lines transmit electricity generated by the Three Gorges Hydropower Station at the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, China, on July 22 Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Images

China has earned a reputation as the world’s worst polluter. But if the International Energy Agency is right, the Asian nation is on course to set an example for the rest of the planet on the use of energy from renewable sources over the next quarter-century.

According to the Paris-based agency’s World Energy Outlook, China will add more electricity generating capacity from renewable sources by 2035 than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined. Hydro power and wind power will be the two main sources of China’s renewably sourced electricity, with solar photovoltaic cells coming in a distant third, according to the agency’s forecast. (Sorry, no link to the outlook: The IEA charges €120 ($162) for a paper copy.)

China is predicted to add more electricity generating capacity from renewable sources by 2035 than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined
International Energy Agency

These forecasts for China are from the agency’s central scenario, which assumes “cautious” implementation of policies that have been announced by governments but not put into effect as of mid-2013. The agency has two other scenarios, one assuming no new policies are enacted and another assuming drastic action against global warming that gives the world “a 50 percent chance of keeping to 2 degrees Celsius the long-term increase in average global temperature.”

From everything we’ve read in recent years about China’s insatiable thirst for energy, you might think the world’s No. 2 economy is going even bigger into coal than renewables, but that’s not the case, at least according to the IEA. The agency predicts that China’s share of global coal consumption will actually shrink a bit from 2011 to 2035.

China's share of world coal consumption is projected to flatten out
International Energy Agency
China’s leadership has made energy a top priority. In 2011, the nation’s 12th Five-Year Plan set a goal of reducing energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 16 percent in the five years through 2015.

The IEA represents 28 nations that are large consumers of energy and was founded in the aftermath of the 1973-74 oil crisis. For the world as a whole, the agency predicts that renewables will account for 62 percent of investment in new power plants through 2035. That’s a bet that the lull last year was strictly temporary. “Investment in renewable power generation has also been rising steadily but it fell, for the first time, in 2012,” the IEA report says. “In part, this reflects falling unit costs—but it is perhaps also a sign that the prospects for renewables are becoming more complex.”

The amount of money it will take for the world to embrace renewable energy sources is mind-boggling. IEA’s central scenario assumes investment in renewable energy will reach a cumulative $6.5 trillion (in year-2012 dollars) from 2013 to 2035.

To put that in perspective, it’s an annual average of $280 billion.