Narratives before facts: China is now a “renewables powerhouse”

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A new piece at the Conversation claims that China is an emerging “renewables powerhouse”. And it is a classic example of twisting the facts to suit your narrative. It is also a classic example of the repeated failure to use meaningful statistics when comparing countries.

Everything wrong with it, from a quantitative point of view, is shown by the following excerpt:

Targets for 2020, although not included in the UN submission, have already been set by the National Development and Reform Commission. China is aiming for 350 GW of hydro, 200 GW of wind power, and 100 GW of solar power, plus 58 GW of nuclear.

These levels are so far in advance of those of other countries that China can only be described as an emerging renewables superpower. In particular, wind and solar are racing ahead of nuclear, and hydro is being stabilized at just a little above current levels.

The conclusion here is wrong in almost every conceivable way.

First. Are wind and solar “racing ahead of nuclear”? Chinese wind farms have average capacity factors of around 23%. So by 2020 their average output will average less than 40 GW. However, Chinese nuclear power plants have average capacity factors of around 85%. And China is aiming for 58 GW of nuclear. So, nuclear is expected to have average output of just under 50 GW in 2020. Instead of racing ahead of nuclear, wind farms are slightly behind. Likewise, 100 GW of solar will translate to around 15 GW on average, or thereabouts depending on where in China the capacity is built.

Second. Comparing total capacity in China with other countries makes no sense whatsoever. If we do this, then China can be called a superpower of anything. Even at per-capita rates of one tenth of the European level, China will outdo any EU country simply off the back of its greater population. The author of this piece would probably be capable of arguing that China is a powerhouse of Christianity, Islam, Veganism, Water Polo, Skiing, and hipsterism.

So, let’s look at current wind and solar generation in per-capita terms. This is the best way to make meaningful comparisons between countries.

The top 25 countries in the world in terms of per-capita wind energy are shown below. China just about makes the top 25. Per-capita wind power production in China is one tenth of what it is in the best European countries. It is clearly not a powerhouse produce of wind energy.


The same holds for solar power. Here are the top 25 countries:


Again, on a per-capita basis China is getting one tenth as much energy from solar as the leading European countries. Even if we adjust for per-capita electricity consumption, China remains a non-power house. Current per-capita rates of electricity consumption in China are roughly half of those in typical EU countries.

Sadly, the author of the piece, John Matthews, has form when it comes to this kind of thing. Consider this excerpt from another piece, which speaks of a “renewables revolution” in China, written by Matthews:

China’s drive to create the world’s largest renewable energy system is widely recognised.  Dr James Hansen, a prominent climate scientist, asserts in a recent posting that ‘China is now leading the world in installation of new hydropower, wind, solar and nuclear electricity generation’.

The most recent data for 2013 lends support to Dr Hansen’s assertion.

When I first came across this article I was rather struck by this quotation from Hansen, and it rang some kind of bell. So, I looked it up. If you read the entire paragraph Hansen is in fact criticizising Matthews, yes Matthews, for distorting the facts about renewables growth in China.

Matthews quotes Hansen saying “China is now leading the world in installation of new hydropower, wind, solar and nuclear electricity generation”. Here are the sentences that follow immediately on from that:

However, the energy development situation in China is often reported, in the West, in very misleading ways. For example, a 2014 article “China Roars Ahead with Renewables” in Ecologist magazine reprinted from The Conversation, stated “Reports of China opening a huge new coal-fired power station every week belie the reality– China is the new global powerhouse for renewable modernization and industrialization of the country – is now being powered more by renewables than by fossil fuels.” The article concluded “These results reveal just how strongly China is swinging behind renewables as it s primary energy resource..” This distortion of reality, pointed out by Armond Cohen of the Clean Air Task Force, is common and contributes to energy misconceptions discussed below.

The Ecologist and Conversation article referenced by Hansen was in fact written by Matthews.

Here Matthews is not simply distorting the facts to make it seem renewables growth is much greater than it is, but he is distorting the words of his critics to make it seem they agree with him. This is absolutely indefensible behaviour from an academic. It is a bit like the producers of the latest Terminator film taking a review that includes the sentences “The Terminator series remains iconic. However, the makers of the latest in the series do all they can to make this seem a decrepit icon”, and sticking the opening sentence on the review on the poster.

The criticisms by Armond Cohen and James Hansen of Mr. Matthews analysis clearly still stand. It’s just a shame this obviously flawed stuff keeps appearing at the Conversation. In one case it appeared in the form of a Fact Check, a fact check which somehow or another imagined that 1 GW of renewables capacity was the equivalent to 1 GW of nuclear capacity, among other easily spotted errors.

As I repeatedly argue, care must be taken when analysing the growth of renewables or anything else. Apples must be compared with apples. If, you want to construct a narrative about the greening of China, you can easily twist statistics to fit that narrative. But the way to stop drawing erroneous conclusions is simple: compare countries using per-capita rates or using the percentage of total energy consumption that comes from renewables.


2 thoughts on “Narratives before facts: China is now a “renewables powerhouse”

    Fredrik Lundberg said:
    July 12, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    1) But wind is indeed running ahead of nuclear in China, however you count. It produced 158TWh (bilion kWh) of wind power and 126 TWh nuclear in 2014. (BP statistics.) This is definitely comparing apples with apples.
    2) Per capita comparisons tells one story, the absolute numbers another story, though the result in the above case will be the same.
    But as to whether China is a renewables power-house, absolute numbers do matter. The size of the home market and the size of the production capacity is an important factor in the international competition.


      Robert Wilson said:
      July 12, 2015 at 3:00 pm


      I don’t think you have addressed a single argument in the piece. How is wind “indeed running ahead of nuclear in China” if China is actually is aiming for more nuclear than wind generation in 2020?

      Absolute numbers are a completely misleading way of looking at this. China can keep building 50 GW of coal power plants every year, yet be the world’s biggest source of renewable energy. And delusional western observers will continue to call this the “greening of China”.


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