from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Truth and Nonsense on Chinese Clean Energy

April 21, 2011, 10:30 am (EST)

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There is a serious fact-based case to be made for why China is not crushing the United States in a clean energy race. Unfortunately, Bjorn Lomborg’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post makes the argument using a mix of truth and nonsense. This won’t do much but perpetuate an ongoing battle of misleading statistics and dubious interpretations.

Lomborg is correct on a few important points: “87 percent of the energy produced in China comes from fossil fuels”; China’s emissions intensity target is consistent with IEA projections of what will happen without new policies; and the vast majority of Chinese solar panels are exported, not used at home.

But these truths are mixed with real whoppers. Lomborg claims that “almost all of [China’s] investment, however, is spent producing green energy for Western nations that pay heavy subsidies for consumers to use solar panels and wind turbines.” That’s not true. Chinese renewables investment is dominated by wind power, and Chinese wind turbines are deployed overwhelmingly at home. (It’s telling that Lomborg only cites export statistics for solar, which is a much smaller slice of the investment pie.) He adds that much of Chinese wind deployment “has been for show”. How does he know? “A 2008 Citigroup analysis found that about one-third of China’s wind power assets were not in use. Many turbines are not connected to the transmission grid.” But that wasn’t because wind investment was for show – it was because Chinese grid planning was a mess. China has caught up considerably since 2008, though it still struggles. But that’s not because it doesn’t care about its wind assets – it’s because it’s faced capacity challenges achieving its goals.

Lomborg also makes the following peculiar claim: “China also aims for non-fossil-fuel energy sources to account for 11.4 percent of primary energy consumption by 2015. At best, this is a promise to slide backward merely slowly. Today, China gets 13 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels, particularly biomass and hydropower, with a little nuclear energy and a minuscule amount of solar and wind power.” I’ll be generous and chalk this up to a misunderstanding of IEA statistics. Much of the “biomass” energy that he’s talking about isn’t high-tech ethanol of cogeneration – it’s people burning dung and wood in villages. China is rightly aiming to reduce those practices while boosting the use of modern non-fossil sources. If the total figures slide, but modern non-fossil sources go up considerably, that’s real progress.

The op-ed does, however, make an important point: technology is far more likely to be adopted if it is cheap than if it is expensive. Lomborg uses the case of solar water heaters in China to illustrate this: “Because solar heaters are cheaper than fossil fuel heating, consumers don’t need to be paid large subsidies to use them….  A green future will result not from subsidizing immature technology today but from developing competitive green technology that is effective and cheap.” There’s only one problem: China subsidizes purchases of solar hot water heaters. (Sample headline from China Daily: “Solar heating hot due to subsidies”.) Moreover, whatever advances China has made in bringing down costs aren’t mainly because of fancy breakthroughs in research labs – they’re because of economies of scale and gains from learning, both of which has been brought about through mass deployment. And what’s helped make that mass deployment possible? You guessed it: subsidies.

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