Towards a clean, low-carbon, safe and efficient energy system in China

China Plus Published: 2018-03-30 11:43:23
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By Kaare Sandholt

China's National Energy Administration (NEA) under NDRC has recently released its 2018 work plan. It is the first NEA work plan after the 19th CPC National Congress last year and it is certainly interesting reading.

Technicians check solar energy equipment on a roof in Cixi City, east China's Zhejiang Province, May 10, 2017.[Photo: Xinhua]

Technicians check solar energy equipment on a roof in Cixi City, east China's Zhejiang Province, May 10, 2017.[Photo: Xinhua]

A low-carbon energy system

The overall headline for the work plan is to “build a low-carbon, clean, safe and efficient” energy system, which matches very well with the global trends that de-carbonisation, clean energy and energy efficiency has become the main drivers for the energy system development. China’s strong commitment to the Paris agreement is thereby clearly reflected as a top-priority in the daily work for NEA. This is also in harmony with China's general commitment to establish an“ecological civilisation”- one of President Xi Jinping’s ways to promote the peoples need for a good, healthy life. 

The NEA work plan lists seven main guidelines for the work in 2018:

–More attention to a green and low-carbon development

–More attention to improve the quality of the energy supply 

–More emphasis on improving energy system efficiency

–More emphasis on innovation-driven development

–More attention to safeguarding and improving people’s livelihood

–More emphasis on openness and international cooperation

–More focus on energy governance by law.

Concrete actions

Under the umbrella of these guidelines the work plan has detailed actions for the activities.

To make the energy system more green, NEA will strengthen the planning for hydropower development, safely promote the development of nuclear power, continue the development of solar, wind and biomass, and promote the use of natural gas. Furthermore NEA will promote more clean coal mining, more efficient coal power plants and upgrade the quality of oil. Thirdly, NEA will have focus on the end-use sectors, promoting energy efficiency and shift from coal to electricity and clean energy sources.

On the supply side, excess capacity of coal production and coal power plant shall be eliminated, and the development of renewables shall be promoted. To ensure a steady integration of the variable power production from wind and solar, focus will be on measures to reduce curtailment and prioritise the deployment of distributed wind and solar in regions where curtailment is a minor problem. Also the development of a more flexible power system is in focus, regarding power plants as well as the power transmission system.

The energy sector reforms will continue in 2018. The comprehensive power sector reform pilots will be expanded, comprising retail markets, wholesale spot market and markets for ancillary services to support the operation of the power system. Also the reform of the oil and gas supply system is on the agenda for this year’s work.

One of the very interesting news in the work plan is the establishment of a “leading group” for setting up a coordinated energy legal system. Today China has a large number of independent laws within the field of energy, and the whole area needs to be cleaned and harmonised to work for the construction of the ecological civilisation and energy transition.

Also, NEA will strengthen the more strategic energy planning, setting the milestones and roadmaps for 2020, 2035 and 2050 as the major benchmark years in China’s economic and social development. This work also includes a mid-term evaluation of the thirteen five-year plan on energy.

Hidden gem

All-in-all the work plan is both an impressive and comprehensive. The “hidden gem” in the work plan is the possibility to combine the law-reform work with the development of a long term energy strategy, consistent with the overall goals for the Chinese society to develop an ecological civilisation and ensure that “people and nature live in harmony” as the work plan puts it. This is a necessary, although not an easy task to fulfil to ensure the success of the energy transition. For many years, the strategy for the energy system development has been “more of everything” to follow the urgent need for more energy to the rapid growing society. 

New paradigm needed

The recent year’s introduction of a “new normal” in the Chinese economy, putting quality before quantity and changing the economic sectors from energy intensive heavy industry to quality driven, low energy consuming industry and service sectors, significantly slows down the need for rapid expansion of the energy system. Furthermore, the prioritisation of the ecological civilisation as main development path for China requires a strong focus on the environmental impact of the energy sector - air pollution must be eliminated and low-carbon technologies must be promoted. 

In many ways this is a shift in the paradigm for the energy system development, which requires change of mindset, change of strategies and change of measures. The 2018 NEA work plan still has elements of the “old” energy strategy thinking, where shale gas, coal-to-oil and coal-to-gas are among the development priorities although these technologies hardly can be considered as low-carbon technologies. But apart from this, the work plan seems well suited for accelerating the energy transition in the right direction.

(Kaare Sandholt is Chief Expert at China National Renewable Energy Centre.)

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