Smog in Beijing recently reached record levels. (Source: Flickr user michaelhenly)

China recently announced that it would be joining the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), as a global leader in terms of installed capacity and investment. This acknowledgement of its status as a clean energy leader may come as a surprise to some, given the recent headlines about the country’s astounding air pollution. But in 2012, China invested US$ 68 billion on developing renewable energies, 55 percent greater than U.S. investments, making it the largest clean energy investor in the world. Installed capacities for hydro and wind power rose to 249 and 63 gigawatt (GW), achieving another two global “top spots.” Looking into 2013, with aims to add 21 GW of hydro, 18 GW of wind and 10 GW of solar power in a single year, it seems that nothing can stop China’s clean energy ambition.

However, what matters to the energy sustainability is not only the scale of clean energy products, but also the environment-friendly approaches through which the sector is built and operates. While clean energy is certainly not to blame for the large portion of pollution problems, China’s efforts to develop renewable energy so quickly have generated some environmental problems, too. A lack of effective environmental policy-making and regulation has led to unsustainable practices in the renewable energy sector that cast a shadow on those “top spot” numbers.

The Reality of Environmental Impacts

While they constitute a critical building block of a sustainable future, if not managed correctly, production of renewable energy technologies can have some environmental impacts, and sometimes can even create hazardous pollution.

Hydropower is China’s largest renewable energy resource. However, without incorporating sufficient ecological consideration into basin-level planning and engineering design (like fish ladders), dams built for hydropower projects can cause disruption of the natural flows of water that sustain balanced aquatic ecosystems.  The country’s heavily-dammed river system has led to decreases or even extinctions of fish and cetacean species.

For example, long before the Chinese River Dolphin (or “Baiji”) was last spotted by humans, studies rang the alarm that numerous hydropower projects along the Yangtze River, including the Gezhouba Dam and the Three Gorges Dam, had segmented and altered the creature’s habitat. Dam discharges also caused abrupt changes in water temperature, which disrupted the temperature-sensitive reproduction process of Baiji, further pushing it towards extinction.

Wind turbines, if not sited properly, may accidentally hurt birds and bats due to rotation of wind blades and related barotraumas. Therefore, wind farms are suggested to avoid migration pathways and sites of high population density. There is no traceable record showing that China has been conducting such impact assessment before planning on new wind farms. Without strict enforcement of environmental regulations – unfortunately often the case in China – wind power may generate other environmental impacts as well.

According to a life cycle assessment (LCA) of wind turbines, the making of concrete foundations generates particle emissions; the blades and nose-cone (containing fiberglass) are linked to heavy metal emissions. One indispensible component of a wind turbine is the strong Neodymium-Iron-Boron magnet which is located inside the generator and converts kinetic energy into electricity. In this sense, the rich rare earth reserves (especially neodymium) in Inner Mongolia should be a boon to the region, but without stringent implementation of waste treatment regulations, residents of the industrial capital Baotou have to wear masks on the street to protect themselves from acids, heavy metals and other chemicals emitted from the extraction and processing of rare earths.

Hundreds of local residents protested at Jingko’s manufacturing site in Haining, Zhejiang Province. Source: ChinaFotoPress

Likewise, LCAs of solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing reveal that the some processes are energy-intensive and could produce toxic by-products. Released without proper treatment, the pollutants pose health problems for humans and the environment. In the late summer of 2011, a heavy rain exposed poor waste handling practicesat a crystalline silicon PV factory run by Zhejiang Jinko, which led to a 3-day protest from local residents.

Similar cases related to pollution in China’s clean manufacturing and renewable energy sectors are still taking place, revealing loopholes in regulation and especially in enforcement.

Wasted Generation Capacity and Beyond

As discussed in an earlier ReVolt article, wasted installed capacity is a huge problem concerning China’s renewable energy industry. In 2010, only 77 percent of China’s wind turbines were connected to the grid. For 2011, given the considerable growth in total installed capacity and the increase in turbines connected to the grid (62.63 and 47.84GW, respectively), the ratio remained the same. The winter of 2012 witnessed a great curtailment in wind.  Turbine idling is spreading like the flu, and many component manufacturers are cutting their staff, if they haven’t already suspended production. In addition, the estimated proportion of solar PV installed capacity that is connected to the grid is 72 percent (calculated with data from the State Electricity Regulatory Commission and Solidiance).

Various aspects have contributed to such a gap in China between installed renewable generation capacity and actual units connected to the grid. Without proper guidance, the blind investment, fueled by local officials’ pursuit of track records and renewable subsidies from the central government, completely saturated the wind and solar industries.

Local authorities’ pursuit of renewable energy in some instances reached absurd levels. As early as 2009, solar PV was used to justify land-grabbing in Xing’an, Guangxi Province, resulting in farm lands turning into empty-shell factories. Until last June, totally untrained villagers pretended to work by the assembly lines only at times 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.

True Sustainability Needs Regulatory Supervision

If not planned well with strict regulation, stringent implementation and reliable technologies, the establishment of a renewable energy industry in China does not necessarily ensure true sustainability. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ style of thinking will not work. Every step, from the industry’s own life cycle to the institutional regulatory capacity, matters to the overall sustainability of the industry. To reiterate one of the most important lessons from Worldwatch’s China Green Economy and Green Jobs report: building a sustainable future requires using approaches and processes that are sustainable in practice as well.

The good news is that the Chinese leadership is moving forward, though slowly and cautiously, on enhancing regulatory enforcement, improving policy-making transparency, and encouraging media supervision. Our next blog will look into China’s latest policy development on safeguarding the country’s green future.

Wanqing Zhou is an intern with the China program at Worldwatch Institute. Haibing Ma is the China Program Manager at Worldwatch Institute.

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China, developing countries, development, energy, energy policy, low-carbon, renewable energy