China approved two new nuclear power projects last week, the first in more than a year, amid a renewed focus on energy security.
The country is still heavily dependent on coal and other fossil fuels, but in May the State Council, China’s cabinet, stressed the need to develop different sources of energy in its annual work report.
“We will push forward with the upgrading of coal-fired power plants, actively yet prudently develop hydropower, safely develop advanced nuclear power facilities, and maintain optimal development of wind and photovoltaic power,” the report said.
Michal Meidan, director of the China Energy Programme at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, wrote in a commentary published on the institute’s website in June that energy security was clearly becoming a greater concern for China’s policymakers.
“The deteriorating relations with the US have heightened concerns about import dependency while Covid-19 has stressed the domestic infrastructure bottlenecks related to distribution and storage,” she said.
China currently relies on oil, gas and coal to produce enough power to meet its needs and imports of all three rose last year. It surpassed the US to become the world’s largest oil importer in 2017 and last year imports rose by 9.5 per cent.
Yang Fuqiang, a senior energy adviser for the Beijing office of the Natural Resources Defence Council, said the priorities in China’s energy policy were to develop clean, efficient, low-carbon sources – but the government also “values security for now”.
“It needs to balance the development of different types of energies, but there’s also a priority that coal … should give way to renewables and play a supporting role,” he said.
Coal accounted for 57.7 per cent of China’s energy use last year, and Yang said he hoped it would fall below 50 per cent by the end of 2025.
The renewed drive to develop the nuclear sector saw two projects – the second phase of a plant at Changjiang in Hainan province and a new plant in Sanao in Zhejiang with a combined cost of around 70 billion yuan (US$10 billion) – being approved by the State Council.
The new plants are designed to use the Hualong One reactor, a “homegrown” piece of equipment based on French technology that is now increasingly favoured over the American AP1000 reactor.
China’s nuclear plants had a capacity of around 42.8 gigawatts, the third highest total in the world, in March 2019, according to the World Nuclear Association. But once all the reactors currently under construction come into operation, it will surpass the US by reaching a capacity of more than 108GW.
Wei Zhaofeng, vice-chairman of the China Electricity Council, told a forum last year that if China sped up the pace of construction from six to eight reactors a year from 2021 to 2030, the country’s nuclear capacity could reach 137GW by 2030.
The Chinese leadership will approve the country’s next five-year plan in the coming months, and this blueprint for the country’s development will have a significant impact on how the country’s efforts to tackle pollution and cut carbon emissions will develop.
But a recent shift back towards fossil fuels – which are seen as a way of keeping down energy costs and boosting employment – threaten these efforts, which could prove critical to global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In the first five months of 2020, China moved ahead with an additional 48 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power plants, which is 1.6 times the capacity installed in 2019, according to calculations from Greenpeace.
Yang admitted that coal would still play a dominant role in energy policy, but said an infrastructure plan to promote the use of electric vehicles and use advanced technology would help cut the use of oil and gas in the transport sector.
On the other hand, China continues to lead the world in the development of wind and solar power. Last year it added an extra 56GW of wind and solar energy, although this marked a decline from 66GW in 2018.
Meidan argued the country had yet to resolve the contradiction between pushing for clean energy and its reliance on fossil fuels – something reflected in planning at all levels.
“More provinces now have given the green light for coal investment than for wind and solar,” she said.
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