China's Growing Energy Appetite

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The National Energy Administration (NEA) recently published initial energy figures for 2010. And yes, the numbers continue to be staggering. In 2010, China added 91.3GW of new power capacity to bring the total to 960GW, roughly what the United States had in 2007, according to EIA estimates. That 91.3GW is larger than all of United Kingdom's power system capacity as of 2007. In other words, China just added another UK to its power system in a single year! Here's how it breaks down by energy sources:

TOTAL INSTALLED CAPACITY:
960 GW

    Hydro: 210 GW
    Thermal: 700 GW
    Nuclear: 10.8 GW
    Wind: 31.1 GW

NEW INSTALLED CAPACITY IN 2010: 91.3 GW

    Hydro: 16.6 GW

    Thermal: 58.7 GW
    Nuclear: 1.7 GW

    Wind: 14 GW

Solar and biomass should probably be included too, but their impact so far is negligible. The elephant in the room remains coal of course. Back-of-the-envelope indicates that coal -- which constitutes the vast majority of thermal capacity -- is still some 70 percent of total installed capacity. Also striking is wind power growth, which has been doubling over the last several years. Recent reports suggest an even greater capacity at over 40GW, overtaking the US for the number one spot. The Chinese authorities claim that the 31.1GW above represents grid-connected wind power, which implies that China has done a better job in feeding wind power into the grid system so that it's actually generating electricity (remember all that unconnected wind power a while back?). But it's difficult to know if that's actually the case.

Even with an aggressive expansion of renewable energy like wind, solar, and biomass -- which the Chinese intend to do -- coal stubbornly remains king. This is also why the Chinese definition of "clean energy" encompasses everything from natural gas to nuclear to renewables. Anything other than dirty coal basically. (And incidentally, Obama's apparent "new" definition of clean energy in the State of the Union seemed to be converging toward the Chinese definition.) China's natural gas consumption, for example, jumped 20 percent to 110bcm in 2010, according to the NEA. This explains why China is also very interested in unconventional gas like coal-bed methane and shale, of which it contains comparable reserves to that of the US.

Yet, even a narrow focus on moving away from coal will spawn enormous potential in other energy sectors, renewables or otherwise. And there's a good chance too that new policies aimed at constraining coal's growth, particularly various taxes, will have a noticeable effect over the next several years (but that will be the subject at a later date). I suspect nuclear, hydro, wind, and gas will see a lot of support over the next several years. When that five-year plan finally rolls out the door, we'll know with more certainty. Similar to the US, various Chinese energy interests are surely engaged in 11th hour advocacy to get their priorities into the big plan. It'll soon be clear who the winners and losers are.

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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