Renewables versus nuclear: lessons from China

Issue 
China has some of the world's worst urban pollution.

For anyone who knows the science, it’s settled — fossil fuels need to be banished fast from our energy mix. But how do we achieve it? Can we rely on renewable sources such as wind and solar? Or must humanity turn to nuclear power?

That’s a controversy that has bubbled away for years among people who all accept the dangers of global warming. Now, from the energy sector in China, there’s hard new evidence bearing on this debate.

The experience in China shows that as a way of quickly replacing greenhouse-polluting fuels, renewable energy wins against nuclear, hands down.

With some of the world’s worst urban air pollution, the Chinese authorities have pressing reasons to reduce the coal burning that provides just under 80% of their country’s electricity.

Meanwhile, and unlike the case in the West, the threat of global warming is rarely disputed. As a hopeful solution to China’s coal-based dilemma, nuclear power receives strong backing in the government and state bureaucracy. For all the dangers of the nuclear industry, plans for new reactors meet with little overt opposition.

At the same time — and as if to make the country a perfect test-bed for rival technologies — China also has one of the world’s most ambitious large-country programs for developing renewable energy.

Report

The Chinese experience with nuclear power and renewables is explored in a February 19 report from the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.

Nuclear energy output in China has boomed since 2007 with average annual growth of about 10%. Nuclear now provides about 2% of the country’s electricity.

Renewable energy, mostly hydropower, made up 19.3% of China’s electricity generation near the start of 2011. Wind, solar and biomass together accounted for just 1.3%. But in the Chinese energy sector, the striking development during the past few years has been the soaring rise in the output of wind and solar power.

Wind power generation last year leapt by 35.5% to slightly exceed the figure for nuclear, which grew during the year by 12.6%.

“Across the wind-rich northern provinces,” the Earth Policy Institute reported last year, “wind mega-complexes of between 10,000 and 38,000 megawatts each are now under construction. By 2020, these ‘wind bases’ will approach 140,000 megawatts of total installed capacity — more than the entire world had at the close of 2008.”

The Earth Policy Institute describes China’s wind resource as “staggering”, noting a study that assesses the country’s wind generation potential at 12 times its 2010 consumption of electricity.

The study, by scientists from Harvard and Beijing’s Tsinghua University, concludes that even without large incentives, wind power in China “could accommodate all of the demand for electricity projected for 2030, about twice current consumption.”

Stimulated by local demand, China’s wind power industry is now among the world leaders in turbine design and construction. Wind energy generation is expected to continue growing strongly, though at a lesser pace than last year. Growth this year is predicted at 29%.

China Wind Energy Association Chairman He Dexin recently noted bottlenecks including “overcapacity of wind turbines … grid connection barriers and wastage in wind power.” Delays in grid construction meant that at the end of last year about 20% of wind capacity was still to be connected.

Solar

Solar power in China generates only a small fraction of the country’s electricity. But again, the potential is large and the plans ambitious. Clean Technica said China’s 12th five-year plan projected to have 1000 megawatts of concentrated solar thermal power capacity by 2015 and 3000 megawatts by 2020.

But overcapacity in China’s world-leading solar panel industry has prompted a dramatic expansion of the 2015 target.

Last year, solar generation more than quadrupled. Recent official statements point to a goal of installing an extra 10,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity this year.

Unofficially, the aim now is to reach a total solar capacity of 40,000 megawatts by 2015.

Where does this leave China’s nuclear power industry? Compared with its sickly Western counterparts, it might seem to be thriving. But the industry lacks the extraordinary dynamism of the renewable energy sector, and faces challenging obstacles.

At the time of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011 the Chinese government had plans to build up to 100 reactors over the following two decades. The accident brought a 20-month moratorium on approvals of new plants, and safety checks on existing sites. But reactors were not shut down, and construction was not suspended.

In November last year the moratorium was lifted, and further reactors received the go-ahead. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, China now has 18 operating nuclear power reactors on seven sites and a further 28 under construction.

The latter figure represents more than 40% of the total number under construction around the world.

Catastrophes

If the world is to suffer more nuclear catastrophes, the chance of them happening in China has to be rated as high.

In October 2011 Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian complained in a speech reported on the website of the country’s parliament: “The safety standards of China’s early-phase nuclear facilities are relatively low, operation times are long, some facilities are obsolete and the safety risks are increasing.”

A year later, in October last year, the Environment Ministry presented an extensive report that called for an accelerated phase-out of older reactors, for enhancing work on nuclear safety, and for improving the handling of radioactive waste.

“The current [nuclear] safety situation isn’t optimistic,” the report said. “China has multiple types of nuclear reactors, multiple technologies and multiple standards of safety, which makes them hard to manage.”

Many of the reactors now being built are near large cities. Adding to concerns is the fact that several dozen of these reactors are of the older Generation II type — analogous to those at Three Mile Island and Fukushima — and considered in the West to have inadequate safety features.

Diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Beijing, revealed by Wikileaks, note that the fast pace of reactor construction in China threatens to “create problems for effective management, operation and regulatory oversight.” The worst potential problem is identified as human resources — “coming up with enough trained personnel to build and operate all these new plants, as well as regulate the industry.” A key challenge, the cables note, is to “keep an eye on a growing army of contractors and subcontractors who may be tempted to cut corners.”

At the same time as targets for renewables in China have escalated — by tens of times over recent years in the case of solar photovoltaic — projections for nuclear power are being cut back. A Reuters report last October noted: “State media have said China … will likely scale down its 2020 nuclear power generation capacity target to 60-70 gigawatts (GW) compared with earlier expectations of around 80 GW.”

Nuclear power in China retains a formidable cast of supporters in bureaucratic, heavy-industrial and military circles, so the construction programs will not be shut down soon. But the clear prospect is that in the country’s future energy sector, the nuclear industry will be a stunted presence alongside renewable energy.

Advantages

Practice is showing that along with the inestimable virtue of being safe, renewables have a long list of other advantages. Unlike nuclear power, which in China needs imports of uranium fuel, renewables tap into huge local resources of unused energy. The technologies used in renewables are far simpler than for nuclear; as well as tending to reduce malfunctions, this means that the skills needed for construction and maintenance are less exotic and more widely available.

Build times for renewables are a fraction of those for nuclear, and the wind farms can start delivering power long before construction is complete. With wind and solar photovoltaic, there is no need to expend water supplies on cooling — an important consideration in much of inland China.

In a sort of natural selection, these advantages are already tilting energy choices in China toward renewable energy. They can be expected to keep doing so, to the extent that political power-plays do not intervene.

As other countries confront the need to move away from fossil fuels, these are lessons that need to be taken on board.