Five Solutions to China’s Energy Woes

Can China decarbonize without threatening grid stability? Five experts share their views.

On Aug. 15, in the middle of a record-setting heat wave and drought, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan ordered all energy-intensive factories in the city to shut down. Subway stations turned off their lights, and air conditioners in public areas were turned off to conserve precious power.

Similar stories have played out across the world in recent years, from Germany to Texas. But Sichuan was supposed to be different. Known as China’s “power bank” for its rich hydropower reserves, the province supplies desperately needed carbon-free renewable energy to the entire Yangtze River basin. Few were prepared for the possibility that its rivers, including the mighty Yangtze, might run dry.

On Sept. 22, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed China would achieve peak carbon by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. In the two years since, China has struggled to balance the all-important goal of limiting climate change with the immediate concerns of its energy-hungry industrial base. No country is installing more wind and solar power generation capacity, but this summer spotlighted cracks in the system, from challenges routing excess power to where it’s needed to provinces’ continued reliance on coal to stabilize their grids.

In the wake of this summer’s extreme weather event, Sixth Tone invited five experts to share their views on how China could achieve its climate goals while maintaining energy stability. Their perspectives differ. Some stress the need to enhance the efficiency of China’s existing power sources, including both coal and renewables like wind or solar; others argue for replacing fossil fuels with nuclear or vastly expanding ongoing experiments in virtual power plants. But they all agree on one thing: China can and should abandon its overreliance on coal and diversify its energy mix, before it’s too late.