The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China installed record amounts of solar power in 2013. But coal is still winning.

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There have been quite a few headlines lately about the record amounts of solar power getting built in China. In 2013, the country added at least 12 gigawatts of solar capacity — 50 percent more than any country has ever built in a single year. Impressive.

But let's also put this in context. China is a massive country and is building lots of everything. And last year it added far more fossil-fuel output capability than it did solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power combined. The chart below comes from Armond Cohen of the Clean Air Task Force:

New Electric Production Capability Added in China During 2013 (Terawatt Hours)

Now, a few caveats: Many of those newly built coal and gas plants were replacing older, less-efficient plants that are getting shuttered. The solar numbers are also likely a bit low, since we're still awaiting final data. And this is only an estimate of generation capability, not how much electricity each source will actually generate in practice. Still, the basic picture is clear enough: Clean energy is making dramatic strides in China, but fossil fuels continued to dominate in 2013.

What about the future? Seeing as how China is now the world's largest emitter of carbon-dioxide emissions, the country's energy use matters a whole lot in discussions about climate change — especially its coal-burning habits. And, right now, there are two views on how those habits will evolve.

The optimistic green view: Some analysts say that China can't keep burning dirty coal forever. Air pollution is choking its cities and taking years off people's lifespans. Meanwhile, clean energy sources like solar, wind, nuclear and hydroelectric dams are making impressive gains. The country is also growing more slowly, getting more efficient and shifting away from heavy industry.

Citigroup analysts, for example, recently argued that China's coal use could well peak by 2015, far earlier than most other forecasts assume:

The "coal is here to stay" view: But not everyone agrees that coal's days in China are numbered. Even if China does slow down its pace of coal-plant construction, those power plants are going to stick around for many decades, continuing to pump carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. (The majority of China's plants have been built since 2000, and they can operate for 30 to 50 years.)

Armond Cohen ran some numbers. He's not convinced by Citigroup's forecasts on Chinese fracking and nuclear construction. But set that aside. Even in Citigroup's most aggressive low-coal forecasts, coal would still provide 60 percent of China's power in 2020 — seven times as much as wind and solar combined.

As such, Cohen argues that a "peak coal" in China is far less likely than a "long, high plateau" for coal. That's why, he notes, tackling climate change will require "directly address[ing] the multi-decade carbon emissions from China’s coal fleet as it exists today and as it will exist in 2020 and 2030." And that would seem to require some sort of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology for coal plants. (See here for more on that.)

The energy analysts at BP seem to agree with the "plateau" view: In their latest Energy Outlook, they predicted that China won't keep building plants at the same frenetic pace it did in the 2000s. The rate of growth will slow significantly. But China's overall coal consumption will stay high for the next two decades, making up half of the world's coal use, and then decline only mildly after 2030:

Global coal consumption, by region

And here's the global forecast:

Global energy consumption, by fuel:

As a result, BP predicts that global greenhouse-gas emissions will continue to increase for the next two decades — at a time when climate-policy experts think emissions need to start declining if we want a shot at avoiding 2°C or more of global warming.

China's frenzy of solar and wind construction is definitely worth watching. But keep those broader trends in mind when you see those renewable records getting smashed.

Further reading: Is China the last hope for carbon capture technology?