Thought Piece

[As Bjorn Lomborg points out, “by far the largest source of renewable energy used in China is traditional biomass—that is, people burning charcoal, firewood and dung, as China’s poor do to stay warm. Biomass is the biggest source of killer air pollution in the world.”

While the Western world ties itself up in knots about greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels, the human race is standing by as millions of the world’s people die from burning charcoal, fireweed, wood chips and dung. And, of course, biomass is the largest single greenhouse gas emission. It is hard to understand how ‘renewables” have the holy grail, when large scale energy efficiency it still the quickest, cleanest, cheapest source of new energy, especially as the Internet of Things becomes more and more prevalent. It seems easy to argue that the total amount latent energy efficiency would take over 20% of the electrical grid of the world.  Steve]

A ‘Green Leap Forward’ in China? What a Load of Biomass

 Beijing talks a big game about renewable energy, but it will remain reliant on coal for decades.

By Bjorn Lomborg

Feb. 2, 2017 7:18 p.m. ET, Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

Excitement crackled through the environmental movement when China’s National Energy Administration announced last month that the country will spend at least $360 billion on green energy through 2020. Green elites are now toasting the communist country: While President Trump threatens to end costly climate policies, Chinese President Xi Jinping promises his nation will continue to fight climate change.

It’s an interesting narrative, but the facts tell a different story. China’s announced investment works out to around $72 billion a year, much less than the $103 billion the country spent in 2015. When China’s high growth rate is factored in, the green spending appears even less impressive.

But this also glosses over the reality of how hard the transition will actually be. China is a coal-reliant nation, and renewable energy is only a tiny component of the country’s economy. There is also something absurd about asserting the green credentials of a nation where, according to Pew Research, 75% of people feel air and water pollution is a moderate or very big problem.

More than 40% of China’s 2015 spending on renewable energy went to wind power. Wind turbines were once associated with Denmark, but China has become the fastest and biggest adopter. It leads the world even as production slacked slightly in 2016.

The country has invested so heavily that it has an oversupply of wind turbines, though last year it went from installing two wind turbines an hour to around one. They’re highly inefficient, partly because grid development has lagged behind the number of wind farms being built. In 2014 Chinese wind-energy capacity outstripped the U.S. by some 75%, according to a 2016 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Yet China generated less electricity with its turbines than the U.S. did. What happened?

In one Chinese province, 39% of wind energy had to be curtailed, meaning it was turned off and unused around three days a week. In the regions of the U.S. where curtailment occurs, wind farms only have to turn off around 4% of the time, according to a 2014 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study.

The National Energy Administration even instructed authorities in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Ningxia and Xinjiang to stop approving wind-power projects until the country’s infrastructure can keep pace with the new form of energy production.

Wind power is also expensive. The International Energy Agency documents that electricity from currently completed renewables is 80% to 250% more expensive than coal power. The Carnegie Mellon study also found that the cost of wind electricity can be 50% to 200% more expensive than predicted. The academics say that drops in demand, utilization rates, and coal prices in recent years may lead to even higher prices.

The focus on China’s big renewable-energy investment diverts attention away from actions that are less in keeping with its green image. China installed record numbers of coal plants in 2015 and the first half of 2016, according to the International Energy Agency. For all of the talk about China’s huge investments in wind and solar energy, the agency found that in 2014, the latest year for which data are available, 66% of Chinese energy needs were met by coal power. Wind energy supplied 0.4%. Wind will grow, but coal will remain a dominant energy source for China in the decades to come.

It is peculiar—though unsurprising given the sensibilities of Western environmentalists—that those who celebrate China’s “Green Leap Forward” almost always focus on wind and solar technology. By far the largest source of renewable energy used in China is traditional biomass—that is, people burning charcoal, firewood and dung, as China’s poor do to stay warm. Biomass is the biggest source of killer air pollution in the world.

The next-biggest renewable energy source after biomass is neither solar nor wind but hydropower, electricity produced by the energy from water.

Talking about capacity is much more impressive than looking at actual contributions to a country’s energy mix. You will often hear that China outstrips the world in hydropower capacity. You’re less likely to be told that this supplies only 3% of China’s energy needs. By 2040, if China does everything it promised in the Paris Agreement on climate change, the renewable share will increase only four percentage points, with the majority still coming from biomass and hydro.

Living up to the Paris climate promise of reducing carbon dioxide per economic unit will likely cost at least $200 billion or more a year in lost production, according to my analysis using Asian economic models. China’s bold talk notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether future leaders will tolerate such a substantial economic loss.

Judged on today’s reality—and not simply rhetoric—China is less of a green success, and more of a warning tale. Switching to green energy before it is competitive is hard. Very hard.

Mr. Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, is the author of “The Skeptical Environmental