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Adam Cohn/Discover magazine

Adam Cohn/Discover magazine

China’s energy choices to pave the way for the world

201506-24

By Our Common Future


China consumes nearly half the coal mined globally every year. It’s just one example of the staggering scale that characterises everything about China. 

China has also pledged to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. With literally millions of Chinese still suffering energy poverty, meeting demand for new electricity while balancing the global demand for reduced emissions is about as big a challenge as they come. 

Young Frenchwoman Anne-Perrine Avrin, completing her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley under the supervision of Professor Daniel Kammen, is comfortable with the big questions. 

Using a capacity expansion model of the Chinese power sector called SWITCH, Avrin and her colleague Gang He have analysed the cheapest methods of supplying power to the Chinese people, without blowing the world’s carbon budget. 

“While the current trends in renewable energy price reductions alone are insufficient to replace coal on a large scale, the announced 2030 carbon peak is achievable with a carbon price as low as $40 per tonne of CO2,” says Avrin who will be presenting the future outlook for China’s energy needs using SWITCH modeling at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference held in Paris, France from 7-10 July.

She says a carbon price would enable an 80% carbon emission reduction by 2050 with an energy mix of 14 per cent nuclear, 23 per cent wind, 27 per cent solar, 6 per cent hydro, 1 per cent gas, 3 per cent coal and coal with carbon capture at 26 per cent.

“By analysing least-cost electric capacity expansion and hourly generation dispatch simultaneously, SWITCH is uniquely suited to explore both the value of and synergies among various power system technology options, providing policymakers and industry leaders with crucial information about the optimal development of the electricity grid,” she says. 

“Safer, more flexible, advanced nuclear reactor designs could play a major role in integrating high share of variable renewable energies, provided that a structured long-term power sector expansion planning is defined beforehand with high temporal and spatial resolution models such as SWITCH.”

However scaling up China’s nuclear capacity to stabilise demand is not without its problems. The population in inland China is expected to surge, however access to water – vital for nuclear – will not be as easy. 

“The increasing water scarcity in central China challenges the operation of conventional nuclear plants near those rising inland cities. At the same time, intermittency of solar and wind; spatial and temporal factors and environmental issues limiting hydro power; pollution from coal; and high natural gas prices, call for the development of a new nuclear technology, less dependent on water resources than conventional large pressurised water reactors.”

China’s solutions for energy may then shape the way the rest of the world meets its power needs in the future.  

“The Chinese independence to Western trends in terms of power sector capacity expansion could not be better represented than by nuclear energy,” says Avrin. 

“While a ‘nuclear renaissance’, which was widely advertised less than a decade ago, did not occur at the expected scale in Europe and the US, China is currently doubling its nuclear capacity with 26 reactors in operation and 24 under construction in 2015.”

Fourth generation reactors are likely to dominate the mix, paving the way for the world to adopt this long-promised technology. 

“The novel nuclear reactor designs that China will favour in the next years as well as the choices the country will make regarding its power sector expansion…will shape the world’s future energy landscape. They will also have global repercussions on the development and costs of key low-carbon technologies and policies,” she says. 

This is part of a blog series profiling climate scientists, economists, social scientists and civil society members who are presenting and discussing innovative climate science at Our Common Future. For more follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15 on Twitter.

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