China will reduce the nation’s carbon emissions and energy use per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by at least 3.7% this year and perform trials for a carbon-trading program, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said in a report on Tuesday. The country would also make "greater efforts to conserve energy" and "reduce the discharge of major pollutants," it’s top economic planner said.

The report was released as the national legislature began its annual meeting. Bouts of dense smog enveloped half of China in January, sounding international alarms about how the country was dealing with surging pollution issues as part of massive efforts to increase energy security. Beijing, which bore the worst of it in mid-January, recorded peak fine particulate levels of 993 micrograms per cubic meter—almost 40 times more than the World Health Organization’s 24-hour average standard.

China has become a major driving force in the changes the world’s power sector faces today, experts noted at a briefing about how China planned to diversify its power generation portfolio. The briefing was held at the IHS CERAWeek in Houston, Texas, early Thursday morning. At that event, Changyan Zhang, director of China Guodian Power (one of China’s five largest power producers),  said China’s installed power capacity increased at an average 12.4% per year over the last decade. At least 71.6% of installed capacity in 2012 was thermal, but China is prioritizing renewable energy installations, investing $67 billion in the sector last year.

Balancing Renewables and Coal

The 2010–2015 National Five-Year Plan includes a goal to reduce the carbon emission intensity of China’s GDP by 17% below the level of 2010, Changyan noted, as well as targets to install about 1,490 GW. To meet these goals, China will focus on strengthening its development of both "clean energy" and high-efficiency coal-fired power, he said.

China’s reliance on coal will continue, though the ratio of coal in installed power capacity will decline and much new coal-fired capacity will use advanced coal-fired technology, Changyan suggested. Today, about 49% of China’s coal is consumed by the country’s coal-fired generators, with coal units at 300 MW and larger accounting for 74% of the total coal-fired capacity. But "average per kilowatt-hour coal consumption dropped 20% in the past 10 years, representing large efficiency gains," he said.

Meanwhile, as with other countries focused on increasing renewable capacity, China especially is dealing with overcoming challenges to decrease fluctuation and inconsistencies on its grid as well as balancing the "high cost" of wind and solar power relative to conventional power, Changyan noted.

Expanding the Grid for Renewables

Another expert at the briefing pointed out that large-scale development of renewable power would also require remote transmission. Cao Zhi’an, executive vice president of the State Grid Corp. of China—a state-owned entity that operates the grid with the largest amount of wind power integration and the fastest growing wind and solar power generation in the world—said, "The distribution and scale of China’s renewable energy bring difficulty in local balance."

Some practical solutions to resolve the grid integration "bottleneck" are to increase input and accelerate grid construction as well as to "optimize power dispatch and expand cross-provincial transmission to guarantee full integration of wind power." China has embarked on a globally unprecedented program to accelerate ultra-high-voltage power grid construction, Cao said. At the same time, it is encouraging distributed generation with grid access for surplus generation.

Sources: POWERnews, NDRC, IHS CERAWeek

Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)