Energy Systems

China is World’s Leading Renewable Superpower

Top in investment, installed capacity and generation, and moving away from fossil fuels; in contrast to the USA.

by Dr Mae-Wan Ho

Photo Credit: Greenpeace/Xuan Canxiong

Overtakes US in investment

For the second year, the annual Pew Charitable Trusts report, “Who’s winning the clean energy race?” shows China leads in clean energy investment with $54 billion in 2013, well above total US investment of $ 36.7 bn, with Japan in third place at 28.6 bn, and UK a distant fourth at $12.4 bn [1]. But globally investment has been declining for two straight years. Investment totalled $254 bn, a drop of 11 % from 2012, and 20 % from 2011 when investments peaked at $318 bn.

China installed 14 GW electricity generation capacity from wind and 12 GW from solar in 2013, the US installed less than 1 GW wind power after a tax incentive for wind expired, but installed a record 4.3 GW solar generation capacity.

Another important finding is that for the first time, solar power installations eclipsed wind farm construction globally in 2013. One-third of all solar power on the planet was installed during the year, according to Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s clean energy program.

But much more is afoot in China.

Energy revolution

In late 2012, the then president of China Hu Jintao called for a “revolution in energy production and consumption.” In May 2014, the country’s top economic planning agency showed what this means in practice: a massive expansion in domestic renewable energy from wind, sun and water. In 2013 alone, China installed as much new wind power as the rest of the world combined, and as much solar PV as the US over the entire past decade. New targets will dwarf these achievements in the next few years. By 2017, China plans to have doubled its wind capacity from 78 GW to 150 GW, and more than tripled its solar PV capacity from 20 GW to 70 GW. In other words, over the next three years, China will build 6 times the UK’s entire current capacity of wind turbines [2].

There are also signs that China is beginning to wean itself from coal, which currently generates 3 quarters of the country’s electricity. As of the beginning of 2014, a growing number of Chinese provinces had introduced caps on coal use.

Will it be mega projects rather than a participatory approach? Given its past record, China may well go for more megaprojects. But there is increasing awareness that smaller scale decentralized forms of generation are just as important.

Over the past 2 years, Chinese policy makers have introduced changes designed to kickstart a widespread deployment of decentralized solar power and let people generate their own power. An action plan from the State Grid Corporation and new government rules mean that distributed solar installations less than 6 MW could connect to the grid at no extra cost. And new targets have been set for up to 50 % China’s total solar power to come from small-scale projects by 2015. In addition, the Government has established fixed payments for the energy generated and announced it would encourage low cost financing to assist uptake. Indications are that these measures are working.

An estimated 3 GW small scale solar PV was installed in 2013, and 8 GW more expected in 2014, the equivalent of 32 million standard solar panels like those found on hundreds of thousands of British homes. At that rate, China will soon overtake Germany for solar power.

A report China’s Future Generation, launched at the Wilson Center 19 February produced by the World Wildlife Fund and Energy Transition Research Institute, forecasts that China could reach 80 % renewable electricity by 2050 at far less cost than continuing to rely on coal, provided the country opts for a high energy efficiency, high renewables future scenario [3].

2013 an inflection point for renewables over fossil fuels and nuclear, not so for the US

According to a detailed analysis coauthored by John Mathews at Macquarie University Sydney and Hao Tan at University of Newcastle in Australia [4], the year 2013 marks “an important inflection point where the scales tipped more towards electric power generated from water, wind and solar than from fossil fuels and nuclear.”

China added a total of 94 GW generation capacity in 2013, of which 55.3 GW came from renewable WWS sources (Water, Wind, Solar) and 36.5 GW from thermal (mostly coal) sources; China also added 2.2 GW from nuclear sources.Thus just under 60 % of China’s newly added capacity came from renewable sources, while 40% came from non-renewable fossil fuels or nuclear.

China is known widely as the world’s largest user and producer of coal, and the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But it is also building the world’s largest renewable energy system – which by 2013 stood at over 1 trillion kilowatt-hours – already nearly as big as the combined total electrical energy produced by France and Germany.

Both the US and China now have electric power systems rated at just over 1 trillion watts, with China slightly ahead at 1.25 TW compared with the US at 1.16 TW. China is now the most electrically powered nation on the planet, while per capita power consumption remains four times higher in the US.

While coal for thermal power continues to rise, the overall consumption of coal appears to be ‘capped’ at 3 500 million tonnes, a desperate measure in response to the blackening skies and poisoned water and air.

The sharp turn to renewables increase can be located accurately at around 2005-06. In the space of eight years, China has become the world’s most important generator of wind power, with the world’s largest capacity and the largest addition of new power capacity in the year 2013. Close to 30% of electrical energy is now generated from renewable sources. The target of 30% renewables in the electric power system was set for 2015 as part of the 12thFive Year Plan; it has been reached three years ahead of time.

By contrast, the US is getting into deeper dependence on fossil fuels, in particular coal seam gas from horizontal drilling and fracking. The US added only 16 GW in 2013, with natural gas the main contributor at 7.3 GW. All told, the US added 8.8 GW (55%) from thermal/fossil fuels and 5.9 GW from renewable sources (under 37%). The main trend in the US is clearly towards coal seam gas and fossil fuels rather than towards renewables.

Renewables are “smart business strategy”

The immediate motivation for China’s dash for renewables is the smog-blackened skies and heavily polluted water resources. In the medium term, renewables offer energy security over fossil fuels supply, particularly from imports. And renewables could also serve as the foundation for export industries. In its 12th five-year plan covering 2011 to 2015, low carbon and cleantech industries were placed at the core of its growth strategy. So the main motivation for China’s shift towards renewables is that renewables offer a means of expanding energy supplies based on expansion of manufacturing activities and supply chains for renewables (in solar panels and wind turbines, for example), rather than on [4] “expanding extractive industries for fossil fuels around the world and securing them with military force.”

“The renewables option is consistent with a smart business strategy for creating both jobs and export platforms for green products as the core of China’s future development strategy.” Mathews and Tan concluded [4].


  1. “U.S. lags behind China in renewable investments”, Bobby Magill, Clean Technica, 5 April 2014,
  2. “China’s renewables revolution: Big six or big sixty million?”, Sam Friggens, Abundance, 22 May 2014,
  3. “Report: China could generate 80 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050 for less than cost of coal”, Xiupei Liang, NewSecurity Beat, 26 March 2014,
  4. “China’s renewable energy revolution has global implications”, Johan Mathews and Hao Tan, Clean Technica, 8 April 2014,


  1. China opened their eyes to what was happening and decided to do something about it. We in the US open our eyes and go back to sleep. Perhaps China will shame the US into doing something. One would think that at least greed would motivate folks. There’s a lot of money to be made in the renewable industry.

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