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Truth and Nonsense on Chinese Clean Energy

by Michael Levi
April 21, 2011

There is a serious fact-based case to be made for why China is not crushing the United States in a clean energy race. Unfortunately, Bjorn Lomborg’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post makes the argument using a mix of truth and nonsense. This won’t do much but perpetuate an ongoing battle of misleading statistics and dubious interpretations.

Lomborg is correct on a few important points: “87 percent of the energy produced in China comes from fossil fuels”; China’s emissions intensity target is consistent with IEA projections of what will happen without new policies; and the vast majority of Chinese solar panels are exported, not used at home.

But these truths are mixed with real whoppers. Lomborg claims that “almost all of [China’s] investment, however, is spent producing green energy for Western nations that pay heavy subsidies for consumers to use solar panels and wind turbines.” That’s not true. Chinese renewables investment is dominated by wind power, and Chinese wind turbines are deployed overwhelmingly at home. (It’s telling that Lomborg only cites export statistics for solar, which is a much smaller slice of the investment pie.) He adds that much of Chinese wind deployment “has been for show”. How does he know? “A 2008 Citigroup analysis found that about one-third of China’s wind power assets were not in use. Many turbines are not connected to the transmission grid.” But that wasn’t because wind investment was for show – it was because Chinese grid planning was a mess. China has caught up considerably since 2008, though it still struggles. But that’s not because it doesn’t care about its wind assets – it’s because it’s faced capacity challenges achieving its goals.

Lomborg also makes the following peculiar claim: “China also aims for non-fossil-fuel energy sources to account for 11.4 percent of primary energy consumption by 2015. At best, this is a promise to slide backward merely slowly. Today, China gets 13 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels, particularly biomass and hydropower, with a little nuclear energy and a minuscule amount of solar and wind power.” I’ll be generous and chalk this up to a misunderstanding of IEA statistics. Much of the “biomass” energy that he’s talking about isn’t high-tech ethanol of cogeneration – it’s people burning dung and wood in villages. China is rightly aiming to reduce those practices while boosting the use of modern non-fossil sources. If the total figures slide, but modern non-fossil sources go up considerably, that’s real progress.

The op-ed does, however, make an important point: technology is far more likely to be adopted if it is cheap than if it is expensive. Lomborg uses the case of solar water heaters in China to illustrate this: “Because solar heaters are cheaper than fossil fuel heating, consumers don’t need to be paid large subsidies to use them….  A green future will result not from subsidizing immature technology today but from developing competitive green technology that is effective and cheap.” There’s only one problem: China subsidizes purchases of solar hot water heaters. (Sample headline from China Daily: “Solar heating hot due to subsidies”.) Moreover, whatever advances China has made in bringing down costs aren’t mainly because of fancy breakthroughs in research labs – they’re because of economies of scale and gains from learning, both of which has been brought about through mass deployment. And what’s helped make that mass deployment possible? You guessed it: subsidies.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Bruce Higgins

    From the article you linked to, it appears Lomborg is more correct than you are:

    “Because solar energy is a modern and cost-effective way to satisfy the huge energy needs of Beijingers, many developers and house owners are already using renewable energy sources and more want to follow.

    “We were planning to build a solar water-heating system long before the subsidy was available,” said Xu Daming, project manager at Beautiful Cube, a large community built by Sino Hydro real estate in Lishuiqiao.”

  • Posted by jason scott

    Thanks Michael – a vigilant and useful fact check and good actual lessons learned for us here in the USA….facts are stubborn things!

  • Posted by Anon

    I’m not really sure that this is any more “right” than Lomborg’s op-ed. I think it’s perfectly fair to say that the overall thrust of China’s green energy investment is towards the domestic production end of the spectrum.

    [ML: I can't say I understand where in this comment you disagree with me. I never claimed that the Chinese wind industry was mainly for domestic energy policy -- I just said that most wind turbines were installed at home. I've written quite a bit about Chinese renewables policy being more about export than use. But I'm still ready to acknowledge that not every fact in sight fits perfectly with that argument.]

    The fact China has installed a significant amount of wind power in no way counters that statement, particularly when the bidding process for government contracts all but excludes foreign producers (no foreign company, not even those that produce in China, has ever won a gov’t wind project contract). In that sense, even the “installed” wind power can be seen as support for local industry, rather than a genuine effort increase wind power efficiency.

    If it were the latter, would grid planning be lagging so far behind? Would the quality of the remaining 2/3 be questionable in many instances? Significant questions about these installations remain. On the other hand, what HAS happened, without question, is that Chinese MANUFACTURERS of alternative energy technologies have gone from essentially non-existent 5-10 years ago to among the world’s largest…

    This reality fits perfectly with China’s international political stance on carbon emission reductions–essentially, that “rich” countries should be required by law to consume these technologies, while China should be unfettered in its ability to produce them, with, of course, technological assistance and financial support for that production from the “rich” countries.

    I think Lomborg’s questions are 100% fair, and the facts that he presents are no more mixed with questionable assertions and assumptions than the facts presented here…

    [ML: I still don't follow. Which facts or assertions in this post do you think are wrong?]

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