Green around the renewable gills
18 February 2013
By Haibing Ma and Wanqing Zhou
China recently announced that it would join the International Renewable
Energy Agency. China is a global leader in terms of installed capacity
and investment in clean energy, though the acknowledgement of its status
may come as a surprise to some, given the recent headlines on the
country's air pollution. But in 2012, China invested $68 billion to
develop renewable energies, 55 percent more than US investments, making
it the largest clean energy investor in the world.
What is important for energy sustainability, however, is not only the
scale of clean energy products and the amount of investment, but also
the environmentally friendly approach through which the sector is built
and operated. Although clean energy is certainly not to blame for a
large part of the pollution problems, China's efforts to rapidly develop
renewable energy have generated some environmental problems.
The lack of effective environmental policymaking and regulation has led
to unsustainable practices in China's renewable energy sector that have
cast a shadow on the country's "top spot" numbers.
While the production of renewable energy technologies constitutes a
critical building block of a sustainable future, if it is not managed
correctly, it can have some negative environmental impacts and sometimes
can even create hazardous pollution.
Hydropower is China's largest renewable energy resource. Without
incorporating sufficient ecological consideration into basin-level
planning and engineering design (like fish ladders), however, dams built
for hydropower projects can disrupt the natural flow of water that
sustains balanced aquatic ecosystems. The country's heavily-dammed river
system has led to a decrease or even extinction of some fish and
If wind turbines are not installed at proper sites, their blades can
accidentally injure birds and bats. Wind farms, therefore, should be set
up far away from the migration paths of birds and areas with high
population density. But there are no traceable records to show that
China has been conducting such impact assessments before planning new
Similar cases related to pollution in China's clean manufacturing and
renewable energy sector are still being reported, revealing loopholes in
regulation, especially in enforcement.
In 2010, only 77 percent of China's wind turbines were connected to
power grids. In 2011, despite the considerable growth in total installed
capacity and the increase in turbines connected to grids (62.63
gigawatts and 47.84 gigawatts, respectively), the ratio remained the
same. The winter of 2012 witnessed a great curtailment in wind. As a
result, turbine idling is spreading like the flu, and many component
manufacturers are cutting their staff, that is, if they haven't already
In addition, the estimated proportion of solar polyvinyl installed
capacity connected to grids is 72 percent (calculated with data from the
State Electricity Regulatory Commission and Solidiance).
Various aspects have contributed to such a gap between installed
renewable generation capacity and actual units connected to grids in
China. Without proper guidance, blind investment fueled by renewable
subsidies from the central government has saturated the wind and solar
Local authorities' pursuit of renewable energy in some instances has
reached absurd levels. As early as 2009, solar polyvinyl was used to
justify land acquisitions in Xing'an, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region,
resulting in farm lands turning into empty-shell factories. Until last
June, untrained villagers pretended to work on the assembly lines when
government officials visited the facility.
This waste of not only electricity generation, but also of natural and
human capital, further drives the industry away from true sustainability.
If not planned well with strict regulation, stringent implementation,
and reliable technologies, the establishment of a renewable energy
industry in China will not necessarily ensure true sustainability. Every
step, from the industry's lifecycle to the institutional regulatory
capacity, matters for the overall sustainability of the industry.
The good news is that the Chinese leadership is moving forward, though
slowly and cautiously, to enhance regulatory enforcement, improve
transparency and encourage media supervision.
Haibing Ma is the China program manager at the Worldwatch Institute, and
Wanqing Zhou is a research intern with the program.
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