Clear The Air Energy Blog Rotating Header Image

Clean Energy

How Politics and Pollution Could Push China Into the Climate Leader Role the US Is Giving up

https://www.desmogblog.com/2017/01/30/how-politics-pollution-could-push-china-climate-leader-role-us-giving

Earlier this month China halted more than 100 coal-fired power projects. Scrapping these projects, with combined installed capacity of more than 100 gigawatts, may have more to do with China’s current overcapacity in coal production than its commitment to mitigating climate change. Nevertheless, Chinese leaders are likely happy that the move is framing their nation as a green energy leader, according to experts in Chinese and environmental policy.

That’s because, they say, the Chinese government is now eager to fill the vacuum in climate change leadership that is being left by the U.S. And, they say, China is poised to eat America’s lunch in the renewable energy sector.

Pollution Fuels China’s New Energy Priorities

Saying that China is doing nothing on climate change has long been a right wing talking point used to stop U.S. regulations such as carbon taxes. While that may have been true a decade ago, it certainly isn’t true now.

Already, China is both the world’s leading producer of renewable energy technologies and its biggest consumer.

A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report showed that China invested $287.5 billion in clean energy in 2016, while the U.S. spent $58.6 billion. And in January it announced plans to invest an additional $120 billion a year in renewable power before 2020.

China’s five-year plan on energy and climate is ambitious, calling for an 18 percent reduction in carbon intensity from 2015 levels. It aims to reduce coal to 55 percent of total power by 2020, down from 69 percent now.

But China’s most urgent need is not reducing greenhouse gases, or even cashing in on the burgeoning green tech market, but eliminating the smog choking its cities, which is caused by burning coal, oil, and biomass. Over the past decade, China’s degraded air quality has caused millions of premature deaths, hurt its economy, and has become a primary cause of social unrest.

John Chung-En Liu, a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told DeSmog that, despite positive stories about scrapping coal plants, these actions don’t mean an imminent end to China’s use of fossil fuels. And they don’t mean China is doing this for the world’s benefit either.

“The media have been talking about closing down 100 coal powered plants, but the real reason is that China has overbuilt from a massive expansion of coal over the past 20 years,” he said. “The Chinese government is committed to green tech but can’t make the move quickly because of the infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, China’s ambitious plans are bound to help reduce emissions that lead to global warming in the long run. And scholars say the country is planning to use its investment in green tech to its advantage, and at the expense of the United States.

China Poised to Benefit From Investment in Renewables

China’s dominance in wind, solar, and hydro energy is growing as the U.S. is falling behind, experts have said.

A paper released in December by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) made the case that, even before Donald Trump took office, the U.S. was forfeiting its chance to capitalize on the growing clean energy market.

“The United States is losing this race because Asian countries are out-investing the United States and dictating the terms of competition, often flooding the market with low-cost, unimaginative products,” the ITIF report concluded.

In 2016, China was by far the leader in producing solar energy. At the end of 2014, China made one out of every three wind turbines in the world and last year a Chinese wind energy company bested American companies in producing wind power. In fact the country is producing more wind power than it can use, at least until the central government finds a way to move energy from where it’s produced to where it’s needed.

Last year China led the world in sales and manufacture of electric vehicles.

America, too, could benefit from similar growth in green tech if the current administration weren’t so committed to fossil fuels, according to Angel Hsu, a professor of environmental studies at the Yale School of Forestry.

“The U.S. economy stands to suffer with Trump’s denial of clean energy,” said Hsu. “If Trump wants to create jobs like he says he does, ignoring the potential of green jobs would be a huge oversight.”

China’s Climate Change Asset: A Lack of Kochs

Scholars of Chinese energy policy say the country benefits from having no climate denying lobby or equivalent to the Koch brothers.

“A critical difference is that there is no private oil and gas lobby in China,” Liu said, adding that climate skeptics are a fringe group within the Communist Party and largely ignored.

Energy interests are state-owned in China, and while they are not puppets of the state, they have much less relative power on the state’s official policies. Right now, the official state policy is to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases as quickly as possible.

“When the central government says, ‘Set up the policy,’ the companies must follow,” Liu said. “Yes, they will try to exert their influence within the government but not to the extent as oil and gas companies do in the U.S. In the U.S., industry will try to block any carbon regulation that hurts their opportunities, so they fight vehemently to slow down any regulation.”

Will U.S. Cede Climate Leadership to China?

Unlike President Obama, who urged the U.S. to show leadership in curbing climate change, the Trump administration has made clear that it plans to double down on dirty energy. While China has promised to expand its climate commitments, the new U.S. president has threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement. That could allow Bejing to fill the leadership void left by Washington.

State-run newspapers are already boasting of China’s potential to exploit its leadership on global warming.

In a speech at the most recent World Economic Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a vigorous defense of multilateral cooperation, the kind of speech that U.S. presidents used to give, observers noted.

“Countries should view their own interest in the broader context and refrain from pursuing their own interests at the expense of others,” Xi declared.

China still has issues of huge inequality and provincial needs that are often at odds with the edicts of the central government. And for all its ambitious goals, the central government still doesn’t have a plan to address how it will meet them without economic pain for some coal-dependent provinces in the short term.

Liu points out that China is stuck with dirty industries, in addition to dirty means of powering them, and any tightening of regulations could come at the expense of much-needed jobs that may support an entire region.

Hsu told DeSmog that Chinese colleagues she spoke with at the Marrakech climate conference in November 2016 were optimistic about their country’s prospects in seizing not only economic opportunities in green tech, but the nation’s ability to claim the moral high ground on climate change.

“They said worldwide pressure would be put on the U.S. because they’re the second largest emitter of carbon and they’re not doing anything,” Hsu said. “So it deflects attention away from China and allows them to consider how to decarbonize to 2050 and put a long-term strategy in place. They don’t necessarily seek this role on climate change but they’re willing to take it in the absence of U.S. leadership.”

It’s been little more than a week under the new Trump administration, but all signs so far point to the U.S. government trumpeting discredited views on climate science and getting left behind in the burgeoning clean energy sector.

Forget about peak oil … here’s the real reason Saudi Arabia is selling its oilfields

New technologies are poised to displace oil as our dominant fuel source

“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil,”

Sheikh Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister in the 1970s

This sentiment arguably still chimes with Riyadh’s outlook in 2016 particularly with countries such as China exploring long-term alternative sources of clean energy.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, announced in April by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the first phase of which, the National Transformation Plan, was approved last week by the cabinet in Riyadh, envisages a huge diversification of the Saudi economy away from its dependency on oil production over the coming decades.

In the near term, Saudi Arabia continues to target oil market share, pumping at near record highs, although, as current Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih said on June 2 at a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries “there is no reason to expect that Saudi Arabia is going to go on a flooding campaign”.

Undoubtedly Saudi Arabia’s pumping strategy continues to reflect, at least partly, Riyadh’s desire not to hand market share to its regional rival Iran as the latter seeks to ramp up oil production following the easing of Western sanctions related to Tehran’s nuclear programme.

But it likely also includes a calculation that targeting price over market share is no longer a viable policy.

The higher the price of a barrel of oil, the easier it is to justify the production of energy where the extraction costs are significantly greater than those of Saudi Arabia, especially when low interest rates allow projects to secure cheap financing.

Equally, newly-developed extraction technologies do not disappear.

Saudi Arabia may have hoped to bear down, through increased production, on the ability of the US shale oil industry’s ability to compete but those US producers have, so far, proved tenacious.

Shale oil potentially becomes stranded in the ground if the global oil price is too low to justify its extraction but as the price ticks up, the production comes back on-stream while technological advances may even lower the extractive costs.

But as Riyadh looks out to 2030 it also has to factor into its calculations that major energy-consuming economies, including China, are ploughing money into efforts to develop dependable sources of clean energy.

On the consumer side, Hong Kong itself is already championing the use of electric vehicles but that electricity is still largely sourced from carbon-energy.

The ultimate prize is to create that electricity from a carbon-free energy source.

And one way to do that is by exploring the feasibility of nuclear fusion technology to re-create on planet Earth the conditions that generate the energy that powers the sun and the stars. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Project, after the Latin word iter meaning the way, is a collaboration of 35 nations including China.

The aim, as ITER explains it, is to create “the tokamak… an experimental machine designed to harness the energy of fusion”.

“Inside a tokamak, the energy produced through the fusion of atoms is absorbed as heat in the walls of the vessel. Just like a conventional power plant, a fusion power plant will use this heat to produce steam and then electricity by way of turbines and generators,” ITER says.

Science fiction? Yet in February Chinese scientists in Hefei, the capital of Jiangsu province, managed in their own Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) to heat, as the POST reported, “a hydrogen gas – a hot ionised gas called a plasma – to about 50 million Kelvins (49.999 million degrees Celsius). The interior of our sun is calculated to be around 15 million Kelvins.”

Previous experiments by European and Japanese physicists could only hit that temperature for periods of less than a minute. The EAST team maintained that temperature for 102 seconds which was a breakthrough.

Energy produced from fusion technology is many decades away even if it is shown to be achievable but Riyadh understands it is just another example of how the world is seeking alternatives to carbon energy.

Saudi Arabia may not have been looking EAST when it mapped out its 2030 Vision but the Hefei success, and indeed technological advances in shale oil extraction, surely underscore why Riyadh is targeting oil market share, not price, and help explain its determination to diversify the Saudi economy over the next few decades.

As a major energy consumer, China can surely only benefit from this as Saudi Arabia has apparently realised that Sheikh Yamani had a point.
________________________________________
Source URL: http://www.scmp.com/business/global-economy/article/1974989/forget-about-peak-oil-heres-real-reason-saudi-arabia-selling

Uruguay makes dramatic shift to nearly 95% electricity from clean energy

In less than 10 years the country has slashed its carbon footprint and lowered electricity costs, without government subsidies. Delegates at the Paris summit can learn much from its success

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/uruguay-makes-dramatic-shift-to-nearly-95-clean-energy

As the world gathers in Paris for the daunting task of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, one small country on the other side of the Atlantic is making that transition look childishly simple and affordable.

In less than 10 years, Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint without government subsidies or higher consumer costs, according to the country’s head of climate change policy, Ramón Méndez.

In fact, he says that now that renewables provide 94.5% of the country’s electricity, prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. There are also fewer power cuts because a diverse energy mix means greater resilience to droughts.

It was a very different story just 15 years ago. Back at the turn of the century oil accounted for 27% of Uruguay’s imports and a new pipeline was just about to begin supplying gas from Argentina.

Now the biggest item on import balance sheet is wind turbines, which fill the country’s ports on their way to installation.

Biomass and solar power have also been ramped up. Adding to existing hydropower, this means that renewables now account for 55% of the country’s overall energy mix (including transport fuel) compared with a global average share of 12%.

Despite its relatively small population of just 3.4 million, Uruguay has earned a remarkable amount of global kudos in recent years. It enacted groundbreaking marijuana legalisation, pioneered stringent tobacco control, and introduced some of the most liberal policies in Latin America on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Now, it is being recognised for progress on decarbonising its economy. It has been praised by the World Bank and the Economic commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the WWF last year named Uruguay among its “Green Energy Leaders”, proclaiming: “The country is defining global trends in renewable energy investment.”

Cementing that reputation, Méndez – formerly the country’s national director of energy – has gone to this week’s UN talks with one of the world’s most ambitious national pledges: an 88% cut in carbon emissions by 2017 compared with the average for 2009-13.

There are no technological miracles involved, nuclear power is entirely absent from the mix, and no new hydroelectric power has been added for more than two decades. Instead, he says, the key to success is rather dull but encouragingly replicable: clear decision-making, a supportive regulatory environment and a strong partnership between the public and private sector.

As a result, energy investment – mostly for renewables, but also liquid gas – in Uruguay over the past five years has surged to $7bn, or 15% of the country’s annual GDP. That is five times the average in Latin America and three times the global share recommended by climate economist Nicholas Stern.

“What we’ve learned is that renewables is just a financial business,” Méndez says. “The construction and maintenance costs are low, so as long as you give investors a secure environment, it is a very attractive.”

The effects are apparent on Route 5 from Montevideo to the north. In less than 200 miles, you pass three agroindustrial plants running on biofuel and three windfarms. The biggest of them is the 115MW Peralta plant built and run by the German company, Enercon.

Its huge turbines – each 108 metres tall – tower over grasslands full of cattle and rhea birds.

Along with reliable wind – at an average of about 8mph – the main attraction for foreign investors like Enercon is a fixed price for 20 years that is guaranteed by the state utility. Because maintenance costs are low (just 10 staff) and stable, this guarantees a profit.

As a result, foreign firms are lining up to secure windfarm contracts. The competition is pushing down bids, cutting electricity generating costs by more than 30% over the past three years. Christian Schaefer, supervising technician at Enercon said his company was hoping to expand and another German company Nordex is already building an even bigger plant further north along route five. Trucks carrying turbines, towers and blades are now a common sight on the country’s roads.

Compared to most other small countries with high proportions of renewables, the mix is diverse. While Paraguay, Bhutan and Lesotho rely almost solely on hydro and Iceland on geothermal, Uruguay has a spread that makes it more resilient to changes in the climate.

Windfarms such as Peralta now feed into hydropower plants so that dams can maintain their reservoirs longer after rainy seasons. According to Méndez, this has reduced vulnerability to drought by 70% – no small benefit considering a dry year used to cost the country nearly 2% of GDP.

This is not the only benefit for the economy. “For three years we haven’t imported a single kilowatt hour,” Méndez says. “We used to be reliant on electricity imports from Argentina, but now we export to them. Last summer, we sold a third of our power generation to them.”

There is still a lot to do. The transport sector still depends on oil (which accounts for 45% of the total energy mix). But industry – mostly agricultural processing – is now powered predominantly by biomass cogeneration plants.

Méndez attributed Uruguay’s success to three key factors: credibility (a stable democracy that has never defaulted on its debts so it is attractive for long-term investments); helpful natural conditions (good wind, decent solar radiation and lots of biomass from agriculture); and strong public companies (which are a reliable partner for private firms and can work with the state to create an attractive operating environment).

While not every country in the world can replicate this model, he said Uruguay had proved that renewables can reduce generation costs, can meet well over 90% of electricity demand without the back-up of coal or nuclear power plants, and the public and private sectors can work together effectively in this field.

But, perhaps, the biggest lesson that Uruguay can provide to the delegates in Paris is the importance of strong decision-making. As has been the case at countless UN climate conferences, Uruguay was once paralysed by a seemingly endless and rancorous debate about energy policy.

All that changed when the government finally agreed on a long-term plan that drew cross-party support.

“We had to go through a crisis to reach this point. We spent 15 years in a bad place,” Méndez said. “But in 2008, we launched a long-term energy policy that covered everything … Finally we had clarity.”

That new direction made possible the rapid transition that is now reaping rewards.

Small nations, renewable giants

Uruguay gets 94.5% of its electricity from renewables. In addition to old hydropower plants, a hefty investment in wind, biomass and solar in recent years has raised the share of these sources in the total energy mix to 55%, compared with a global average of 12%, and about 20% in Europe.

Costa Rica went a record 94 consecutive days earlier this year without using fossil fuel for electricity, thanks to a mix of about 78% hydropower, 12% geothermal and 10% wind. The government has set a target of 100% renewable energy by 2021. But transport remains dirty.

Iceland has the advantage of being a nation of volcanoes, which has allowed it to tap geothermal sources of 85% of its heating and – with the assistance of hydropower – 100% of its electricity. This has made it the world’s largest green energy producer per capita.

Paraguay has one huge hydropower dam at Itaipu, which supplies 90% of the country’s electricity.

Lesotho gets 100% of its electricity from a cascade of dams that have enough spare capacity to export power to South Africa.

Bhutan’s abundant hydropower resources generate a surplus of electricity that accounts for more than 40% of the country’s export earnings. But over-reliance on one source can be a problem. In the dry season, it has to import power from India.

• This article was amended on 4 December 2015. An earlier version described Ramón Méndez as Uruguay’s national director of energy; he was formerly, but Olga Otegui now holds that post.