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Biomass processing
China’s government has a goal to produce at least 15 percent of total energy consumption by 2020 from non-fossil fuel sources (up from 12.7 percent in 2018) as it aims to address environmental issues and replace some coal-fired generation. To this end, China is encouraging investment in renewable energy and accompanying transmission infrastructure through financial and economic incentives. Altogether, hydropower and other renewable projects generated more than 1,800 Terrawatt hours of net electricity in 2018, an 11 percent increase from 2017 levels. Terawatt hour (TWh)is a unit of energy used for expressing the amount of produced energy, electricity and heat. [Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration country analysis briefs, September 30, 2020]

According to Associated Press: Beijing has spent tens of billions of dollars on building solar and wind farms to reduce reliance on imported oil and gas and clean up its smog-choked cities. China accounted for about half of global investment in wind and solar in 2020. Still, coal is expected to supply 60 percent of its power in the near future. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, April 24, 2022]

With China’s sheer size and the extraordinary pace of its economic growth, the energy provided by alternative sources are only a drop in the bucket for all the energy that is consumed in the country. A big deal was made about the Zhuhai Wonder Wind Power farm, with 21 wind turbines, near Macao. But it turns all the power produced by those turbines in a month would only keep the nearby Venetian Hotel in Macao going for a couple of hours.

In 2015, China’s renewable energy, including hydropower, accounted for a combined 24.5 percent of the nation’s power generation but grid issues meant that electricity from some projects was wasted. According to Bloomberg: About 19.6 percent of China’s total power generation came from hydropower plants, with 3.3 percent from wind, and 0.7 percent from solar, the National Energy Administration said in a report posted on its website. The share from biomass power was 0.2 percentage points higher than from solar even though capacity was about a quarter of total photovoltaic installations. [Source: Bloomberg News, August 24, 2016]

China plans to rely on more electric generation from nuclear, renewable sources, and natural gas to replace some coal-fired generation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the heavy air pollution in urban areas. Electricity: from other renewable sources: 18 percent of total installed capacity (2017 est.), 46th in the world. [Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration country analysis briefs, September 30, 2020; CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Adam Minter of Bloomberg wrote: In its impatient drive to become a leader in renewable energy and conservation, China often underinvests in the infrastructure needed to realize its ambitions. Much of the energy generated by China's wind-power turbines, for instance, never reaches consumers because the electric grid lacks the capacity to transmit it. In one province, fully 43 percent of generated wind power goes nowhere. The situation is similar in solar, where a significant amount of new capacity isn't even hooked up to the grid. In sunny, vast Xinjiang Province, more than half the solar power generated simply goes to waste. If China continues to approach renewable energy this way, it isn't going to get very far. A better approach is to be, frankly, a little boring. Start by building up public works, such as power grids and charging stations, before imposing new-energy requirements and technologies. [Source: Adam Minter, Bloomberg, March 2, 2017]

Growth of Alternative Energy in China

China said it planned to get 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass and small hydroelectric dams — as a means of reducing pollution and its reliance on coal and oil — by 2010, with wind power showing the greatest potential at that time. To boost production the government has passed a nationwide renewable energy law that mandates targets for increased power generation using alternative energies and provides tax incentives for those who use them. In 2005 Beijing said it would spend $192 billion by 2020 to boost the use of solar, wind and biomass energy.

China surpassed the rest of the world as the biggest investor in wind turbines and other clean energy technology in the early 2010s. In 2010, according to a list complied by accounting firm Ernst & Young, China beat out the United States for the first time as No. 1 in the world for renewable energy projects, meaning that it is the most attractive place for investments in solar and wind power and other alternative energies. A law announced in December 2009 requires China’s utilities to buy all the power produced by wind farms and other renewable energy sources as part of China’s effort to promote alternative energies and reduce its reliance on coal.

The Chinese government earmarked $738 billion to invest in developing clean energy between 2010 and 2020. China doubled consumer subsidies for renewable power generation in the second half of 2009 to $545 million. In the second quarter of 2010 it attracted $11.5 billion in asset-financing for clean technologies, more than Europe and the United States combined. Mark Bachman, an analyst with Auriga USA, told Bloomberg, “China is rapidly developing a market that supports its own manufacturers. In the U.S. it’s almost impossible to get 50 states to agree on renewable energy policy and it’s likely to be so watered down as to be ineffective.”

Renewable energy industries here are adding jobs rapidly, reaching 1.12 million in 2008 and climbing by 100,000 a year, according to the government-backed Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association. Yet renewable energy may be doing more for China’s economy than for the environment. Total power generation in China is on track to pass the United States in 2012 — and most of the added capacity will still be from coal.

China’s Energy Policy

Solar power in Xinjiang
In 2001, Chinese officials abruptly expanded its program to develop energy technology. Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “The reasons were clear. Once the largest oil exporter in East Asia, China was now adding more than two thousand cars a day and importing millions of barrels; its energy security hinged on a flotilla of tankers stretched across distant seas. Meanwhile, China was getting nearly eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, which was rendering the air in much of the country unbreathable and hastening climate changes that could undermine China’s future stability. Rising sea levels were on pace to create more refugees in China than in any other country, even Bangladesh. When Hu Jintao called on China to adopt a “scientific concept of development,” in 2003, he was making a point: China’s history of development at all costs had run its course. And, in ways that were easy to overlook, China had embarked on deep changes. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

“In the summer of 2005, Edward Cunningham, a Ph.D. student researching energy policy at M.I.T., was travelling in the Chinese countryside when he noticed something peculiar: the government was allowing the price of coal to rise sharply, after decades of controls. “I said, ‘How the hell’ he recalled. ‘That can’t be right.’ Maybe this is just some freak anecdotal evidence. It was in fact a pivotal change: Manipulating the price of coal had always insured that Chinese utilities would produce ever more electricity, but the unhappy side effect was that utilities needed to build nothing more efficient than the cheapest, dirtiest plants. Coal prices had begun to rise, however, and that would leave power plants no choice but to install cleaner, more efficient equipment. Cunningham, now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, said that the effect had broad consequences. “We are going to see a huge amount of learning that we have not seen in the U.S.”

“In 2006, Chinese leaders redoubled their commitment to new energy technology; they boosted funding for research and set targets for installing wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and other renewable sources of energy that were higher than goals in the United States. China doubled its wind-power capacity that year, then doubled it again the next year, and the year after. The country had virtually no solar industry in 2003; five years later, it was manufacturing more solar cells than any other country, winning customers from foreign companies that had invented the technology in the first place. As President Hu Jintao...put it in October of this year, China must “seize preëmptive opportunities in the new round of the global energy revolution.”

Even though “many factories are churning out cheap, unreliable turbines, because the government lacks sufficient technical standards....the grid problem is probably temporary. China is already buying and installing the world’s most efficient transmission lines — an area where China has actually moved ahead of the U.S.,” according to Deborah Seligsohn, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. In the next decade, China plans to install wind-power equipment capable of generating nearly five times the power of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest producer.

Green Energy and Clean Technology in China

In 2009 China invested $34 billion in clean technology, compared to $18 billion by the United States. Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: “The contrast which shocked many in Washington is partly explained by different political systems, vested interests and stages of development. While the US is dominated by big oil and big money, China is run by big hydro and big brother a dictatorship of engineers.”

A report issued by Australia’s Climate Institute in October 2010 ranked China as a leader in the pursuit of clean energy. It ranked only second behind Britain in incentives offered to pollution created from electricity generation. David Sandalow, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy and International Affairs, told The New Yorker, “China’s investment in clean energy is extraordinary.”

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: “Even as coal use rises, Beijing will blaze further along the trail towards a low-carbon economy. Its wind power generating capacity has doubled annually for four years and in 2010 became yet another field in which China surpassed the U.S, to become number one. Seven of the planet's top 10 solar panel makers are now Chinese.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, February 4, 2011]

“The focus in future is likely to be nuclear energy, forecast to increase tenfold over the next 10 years, and hydroelectric power. In January 2011, the National Energy Agency said China plans to build an additional 140 gigawatts of hydropower capacity in the next five years, though this will have a dire impact on ecologically crucial sites.”

The country's high-speed rail network — non-existent in 2008 — became bigger than the rest of the world combined by 2015. According to one domestic carmaker, China will soon unveil plans for 10 meter electric car charge-and-park places by 2020. In these and other fields, such as eco-city development and public transport construction, the five-year plan is likely to set ambitious spending targets. “

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Wind farm in Xinjiang

Protectionism, Subsidies, Investments and China’s Green Energy Policy

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “China has made up so much ground on clean tech in part through protectionism — until recently, wind farms were required to use turbines with locally manufactured parts. The requirement went into effect in 2003; by the time it was lifted, six years later, Chinese turbines dominated the local market. In fact, the policy worked too well: China’s wind farms have grown so fast that, according to estimates, between twenty and thirty per cent aren’t actually generating electricity. A surplus of factories was only part of the problem: local bureaucrats, it turned out, were being rewarded not for how much electricity they generated but for how much equipment they installed — a blunder that is often cited by skeptics of China’s efforts.[Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

In October 2010, the United States announced it would launch an investigation into charges that the Chinese government has handed billion of dollars in illegal subsidies in an effort to dominate the green technology sector. The investigation was prompted by charges from the United Steelworkers that Chinese businesses can sell wind and solar equipment on the international market at cheap prices because they get subsidies from the Chinese government. That are prohibited global trade rules.

In 2009, China invested about $34 billion in solar panels, wind turbines and other alternative energy technologies, nearly twice as much as the United States. China aims to get 15 percent of its power from renewable energy sources, including hydroelectric dams, by 2020, up from about 9 percent now. But increased consumption of coal — used to generate about two-thirds of electricity in China — will offset any gains.

In December 2010, according to Reuters, official media reported that China will invest 5 trillion yuan (about $850 billion) in renewable energy projects over the next decade. The money spent on the seven industries in the up to 10 trillion yuan initiative could, to a certain extent, overlap with that. The plans could also encounter opposition from some quarters of government. Xu Jian, an economist with China International Capital Corp in Beijing, questioned whether the seven targeted sectors could handle such an influx of cash. "They are still in their initial stage of development. They are unlike conventional manufacturing industries, which are big in scale. So in terms of that, this investment may be too big," he said. [Source: Reuters, December 3, 2010]

China's "Torch" program fast-tracks industries, attracting entrepreneurs with offers of cheap land for factories, export tax breaks and even a free apartment for three years. Some enterprises have been beneficiaries low-interest loans that didn’t need to be repaid in full. Although there is clearly money to be made in new-energy technology, there is skepticism among some experts about its effect on the environment. Wang Yanjia, a professor at Tsinghua University's Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy, said the manufacturing of solar devices helps local economies but won't break or even dent China's reliance on carbon-rich fossil fuels. In Dezhou last year, municipal authorities spent more than $10 million to install solar lighting along miles of road. They also put up posters cheering low-carbon living on billboards once devoted to political slogans. During that period, though, residents bought 60,000 new cars, an increase of 114 percent over 2008. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, May 17, 2010]

China’s Dominance of the Renewable Energy Industry

China quickly became the world’s No.1 maker of alternative energy technology. It was the No.1 maker of solar panels and wind turbines y the late 2000s. Keith Bradsher of the New York Times wrote: “These efforts to dominate renewable energy technologies raise the prospect that the West may someday trade its dependence on oil from the Mideast for are liance on solar panels, wind turbines and other gear manufactured in China.” President Obama, in his State of the Union speech in January 2010, sounded an alarm that the United States was falling behind other countries, especially China, on energy. Despite this many Western and Chinese executives expect China to prevail in the energy-technology race.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the New York Times: “China is increasingly finding that it has to go green out of necessity because in too many places, its people can’t breathe, fish, swim, drive or even see because of pollution and climate change. Well, there is one thing we know about necessity: it is the mother of invention...And that is what China is doing, innovating more and more energy efficiency and clean power systems. And when China starts to do that in a big way — when it starts to develop solar, wind, batteries, nuclear and energy efficiency technologies on its low-cost platform — watch out. You won’t just be buying your toys from China. You’ll be buying your energy future from China.” [Source: Thomas L. Friedman New York Times, July 4, 2009]

Multinational corporations are responding to the rapid growth of China’s market by building big, state-of-the-art factories in China. Vestas of Denmark erected the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturing complex in northeastern China, and transferred the technology to build the latest electronic controls and generators. You have to move fast with the market, said Jens Tommerup, the president of Vestas China. Nobody has ever seen such fast development in a wind market.

863 Program’s Clean Energy Policy

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “On March 3, 1986, four of China’s top weapons scientists — each a veteran of the missile and space programs — sent a private letter to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the country. Their letter was a warning: Decades of relentless focus on militarization had crippled the country’s civilian scientific establishment; China must join the world’s “xin jishu geming”, the “new technological revolution,” they said, or it would be left behind. They called for an élite project devoted to technology ranging from biotech to space research. Deng agreed, and scribbled on the letter, “Action must be taken on this now.” This was China’s “sputnik moment,” and the project was code-named the 863 Program, for the year and month of its birth. In the years that followed, the government pumped billions of dollars into labs and universities and enterprises, on projects ranging from cloning to underwater robots. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

“In 2001, the 863 Program launched a “clean coal” project, and Yao Qiang, a professor of thermal engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, was appointed to the committee in charge. He said that its purpose is simple: to spur innovation of ideas so risky and expensive that no private company will attempt them alone. The government is not trying to ordain which technologies will prevail; the notion of attempting to pick “winners and losers” is as unpopular among Chinese technologists as it is in Silicon Valley. Rather, Yao sees his role as trying to insure that promising ideas have a chance to contend at all. “If the government does nothing, the technology is doomed to fail,” he said.”

“Grants from the 863 Program flowed to places like the Thermal Power Research Institute, based in the ancient city of Xi’an, in the center of China’s coal country. “The impact was huge,” Xu Shisen, the chief engineer at the institute, told me over lunch recently. “Take our project, for example,” he said, referring to an experimental power plant that, if successful, will produce very low emissions. “Without 863, the technology would have been delayed for years.”

Biofuel and Biomass in China

China is the No. 3 producer of bioethanol after Brazil and the United States. China National Petroleum is raising Barbados nuts, yams and other crops that can be turned into fuels used in cars. Barbados nuts planted in local feedlots produces biodisel and yams produce ethanol. Cnooc has a deal with a Malaysian company to make biodiesel from palm oil.

China is also embracing biofuels as an alternative to gasoline but rather than use sugar- or corn-based ethanol as is the case in Brazil and the United States, it is turning to methanol, a clean, colorless liquid also known as wood alcohol that is more versatile than ethanol. Used in factories and vehicles methanol can be made from natural gas, coal, industrial garbage and even recycled carbon dioxide. It produces less energy than ethanol, which can only be made from agricultural products such as sugar cane and corn, but is less corrosive and easier to produce in bulk.

There has also been some discussion of converted farmland used to produce food into land that produces biofuels — namely ethanol from maize and sugar cane, two crops which need a lot of water. There are serious concerns that such a move could result in serious food and water shortages. Environmentalist have suggested that China should instead raise sweet sorghum for ethanol and jatropha bushes and pongamta trees for biodeisel — all of which use less water. Regulations announced in December 2006, give food priority and restrict companies from going into agricultural areas and using the land to produce fuels. China is planing to grow jatropha on a 32,000-hectare plantation in Sichuan as a biofuel.

China Explores the Use of “Combustible Ice”

China has mined methane hydrate — a frozen fossil fuel known as gas hydrate or “combustible ice” — in the seabed of the South China Sea. Samples collected in the northern part of the sea indicate there is volume of methane hydrate is the energy equivalent of 10 billion tons of oil. According to AFP: “Gas hydrates are found in the seabed as well as beneath permafrost but experts say extracting methane from the ice crystals is technologically challenging and expensive. In six weeks China extracted more than 235,000 cubic meters of gas hydrate off the coast of Guangdong province, according to a statement on the China Geological Survey's website. “China has beaten expectations in completing the trial explorations of combustible ice using local innovations in technology and engineering,” said Ye Jianliang, head of the Guangzhou Marine Geology Survey. [Source: AFP, July 2, 2017]

One cubic meter of gas hydrate, which is also known as “flammable ice” because methane can ignite, releases 164 cubic meters of conventional natural gas once extracted, the US Department of Energy says. Methane is extracted by heating or reducing the pressure inside the well to break down the hydrates. Estimates for the size of the planet's gas hydrate deposits vary widely but the US department says it could exceed “the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels”.

“Several countries are hoping to turn gas hydrate into a viable source of energy, including Japan which has reported drilling success off its Pacific coast. But commercially viable production is “another 10 years” away, said Paul Duerloo, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group in Tokyo. “We know where the resource is, the technology we need to apply but the production rates out of the wells are not commercially sustainable at the current prices,” said Duerloo, noting that shale gas, another unconventional energy source that faced similar challenges, took a long time to “take off”.

“China expects to start commercial production of gas hydrate “around 2030”, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources. Another concern surrounding gas hydrate extraction is the potential for methane - a greenhouse gas - to leak into the atmosphere and fuel global warming, said Xu Yuan, associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's geography and resource management department. Nevertheless, gas hydrates have “huge potential” if the cost and technological hurdles can be overcome, he added.

Did the Chinese Steal Scottish Wave-Power Secrets

A burglary at an innovative Scottish wave-power company was forgotten, until equivalent developed by the company showed up in China. The Guardian reported: “It was an unusual burglary. Only four or five laptops were stolen in the dead of night in 2011. So innovative was the company that it had been been visited by a 60-strong delegation led by China’s then vice-premier only two months before. Nothing else was taken from the company and the crime, while irritating, went unsolved and forgotten – until a few years later pictures began emerging that showed a remarkably similar project manufactured in China. [Source: Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, October 10, 2016]

“Then some people who were involved in the Scottish company, Pelamis Wave Power, started making a connection between the break-in and the politician’s visit, which was rounded off with dinner and whisky tasting at Edinburgh Castle hosted by the then Scottish secretary, Michael Moore. Max Carcas, who was business development director at Pelamis until 2012, said the similarities between the Scottish and Chinese products were striking. Hhe said: “Some of the details may be different but they are clearly testing a Pelamis concept.”

“It might be that China’s engineers had been working along roughly the same lines as the UK engineers. Or it may be that China attempted to replicate the design based on pictures of the Pelamis project freely available on the web. Or there could be a darker explanation: that Pelamis was targeted by China, which has been repeatedly accused of pursuing an aggressive industrial espionage strategy.

“Scotland has been at the forefront of the development of wave technology for decades. Pelamis was one of the cutting-edge companies, originally named the Ocean Power Delivery company when founded in 1998 and renamed Pelamis Wave Power in 2007. The company, which employed a staff of 50, developed a giant energy wave machine, which it named Pelamis. It looked like a metal snake, facing directly into the waves, harnessing the power of the sea. It had a unique hinged joint system that helped regulate energy flow as waves ran down its length. Other revolutionary features included a sophisticated control system and a quick mechanism for releasing it into the sea and recovering it. In 2004, it became the first wave-energy machine to generate electricity into the grid.

China expressed interest in December 2010 in an email to Pelamis and Li Keqiang, then China’s vice-premier and now its premier, visited in January 2011. Two months later, the Pelamis office was broken into. The burglar — or burglars — managed to get through a perimeter fence and then the front door. They skipped the first-floor office of the German engineering giant Siemens and continued to Pelamis on the second floor.

China’s 2022 Clean Energy Olympics

A 70-page “Sustainability Report” was released on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 that boasted it was the first-ever “green” Olympics powered with 100 percent renewable electricity. reported: “A detailed breakdown of the renewable energy playbook for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games published by CarbonBrief shows that the Olympic planners did not take the easy way out or fudge any numbers to greenwash this initiative. Instead, China has used the games as a platform for rolling out a new state-of-the-art “flexible green electricity grid” which will allow renewable energy to travel long distances through direct currents. [Source: Haley Zaremba,, February 17, 2022]

“The winter Olympic games has accelerated the construction of the Zhangbei renewable energy flexible direct current (DC) grid,” CarbonBrief reports. “The Beijing 2022 games rely on this newly-built infrastructure in Zhangjiakou City, a $2 billion project launched in June 2020 to distribute wind and solar power, with pumped hydro storage to regulate the variations in output.” Zhangjiakou, where all of these games’ skiing events are being hosted, contains more renewable energy capacity in one city than most countries in the world.

“China already had more than enough installed renewable capacity before this year to power the 2022 Winter Olympics, even though the 400-gigawatt hours (GWh) projected to power the games equals the approximate annual electricity consumption of nearly 200,000 Chinese households. (The country generated 2,480 terawatt-hours (Terrawatt hours) of renewable electricity in 2021).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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