In a recent Slate piece Ramez Naam argues:
In almost every way you cut it, China is already taking a much more aggressive approach toward climate change than the United States is.
This rather bold claim seems perfectly fitted to Carl Sagan’s statement “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Naam’s evidence is extraordinary, unfortunately it is also more than a bit inaccurate. He puts forward a bunch of evidence to support his claim. But let’s just consider this one: “China loves wind more than coal.”
An extraordinary claim indeed. What’s his evidence?
For all this investment in solar power, the energy source most commonly associated with China is coal—dirty, dirty coal, the most CO2-intensive of all the fossil fuels. And yes, China does burn almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. But in 2012, China actually deployed more new wind power than new coal power. In fact, wind power growth was more than double that of coal power growth in China—26 terawatt-hours of new wind generation in 2012 versus only 12 terawatt-hours of added coal generation in the same year.
Now, the inexorable growth of coal in China in the last decade is often news even to people who make some kind of living writing about energy, but could it possibly be slowing down? And could wind be growing faster than coal?
Consider how much coal capacity China has been installing in the last decade:
In 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 China added at least 50 GW of new coal plants each year. The average is slightly over 60 GW per year. In simple terms: since 2005 China has added the equivalent of more than five United Kingdom’s worth of electricity capacity, all in the form of coal. You will also note that the above projections (from the US government laboratory) are not exactly projecting a rapid decline in new coal plants.
So, what did happen in 2012?
Here is the basic arithmetic. China opened 50 GW of new coal plants in 2012 (according to the article Naam himself cites). In contrast China only added 15.9 GW of wind capacity. Capacity of course does not tell the whole story, a point often missed by people. Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that China’s wind farms had a capacity factor of 21.6% last year, which is roughly in line with most statistics I have seen. So, in real terms growth of coal plants is at least eight times greater than in wind farms. Compare this basic reality with Naam’s claim that wind is growing twice as fast as coal.
I’ll conclude by pointing out that I am repeating myself with this post. However, this now appears to a zombie fact, and I expect it to be repeated quite in the too often fact free debate around energy.