The smog-stricken province that could lead China’s renewables revolution

One of the most polluted places in China is ripe for renewable energy development, and could lead the way in meeting the country’s recent climate commitments, according to new research.

The province of Jiangsu, where Unearthed last month revealed the Chinese state is relocating much of its industrial sector, is able to more than triple its current renewable energy targets at half the cost of expanding its energy infrastructure.

According to an analysis from Greenpeace East Asia, Jiangsu aims to increase its solar and wind energy usage by 10GW in the next five years — that’d mean only 5% renewables by 2020.

It could do far more for far less. Considering its renewables potential and grid capacity, Jiangsu could comfortably put in place a plan of 30GW wind, 30GW solar and 3GW biomass by end of decade — that’d be 14%.

The research, conducted with the Chinese Renewable Energy Industry Association, German engineering consultancy Energynautics, and the Jiangsu Electric Power Company’s Research Institute, identified smart grid measures as the key to cost-efficient green growth in Jiangsu and beyond.

The introduction, for instance, of the Dynamic Line Rating, a technology which cools power lines and increases efficiency, could support the integration of all that new renewable energy.

And it’s really quite affordable. The smart grid upgrades required to handle the more than 60GW of new renewable energy are estimated to cost 3.1 billion rmb (equivalent to £320m).

For comparison, necessary network expansion would cost 6.7 billion rmb (£690m).

In its UN climate pledge last month ahead of the Paris conference in December, China said it will get 20% of its energy from renewables by 2030 — though analysts expect it to overdeliver on its targets.

For years China’s renewables growth has been in double digits, and has the largest wind energy capacity in the world. Jiangsu, for what its worth, already produces more renewable energy than any other province in eastern part of the country.

Jiangsu is one of the dirtiest provinces in China (Lu Huang)
Jiangsu is one of the dirtiest provinces in China (Lu Huang)

Don’t underestimate flexible generation

Building a low-carbon economy is more than just who has the most wind turbines and solar panels. China, which has the largest and fastest growing clean energy sector in the world, is facing some serious problems with its energy grids.

Flexibility is vital to actually using all the renewable energy generated, because power systems rely on ‘inflexible’ base-load power plants that consistently produce maximum capacity.

Since coal can’t be turned down, renewables – which produce power intermittently but predictably – make up the difference rather than the other way around. That means a bunch of clean power doesn’t get used.

Smart grids, like DLR used in Germany, put renewables first in the food chain. That’s the thinking behind bringing it to Jiangsu.

And it’s not like the province wouldn’t have to undertake some serious energy infrastructure overhaul in the coming years.

Jiangsu, which is predicted to consume 410 million tonnes of coal by 2020, expects its peak electrical load to rise from 80GW today to 130GW in five years time — that means network extensions to handle that extra load will be required.

And it’ll cost more than that renewables/smart-grid package.