Melanie Hart is a Senior Fellow and Director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress. Luke H. Bassett is the Associate Director of Domestic Energy and Environment Policy at the Center. Blaine Johnson is a China and Asia Policy Analyst at the Center.
In December 2016, the Center for American Progress brought a group of energy experts to China to find out what is really happening.
We visited multiple coal facilities—including a coal-to-liquids plant—and went nearly 200 meters down one of China’s largest mines to interview engineers, plant managers, and local government officials working at the front lines of coal in China.
We found that the nation’s coal sector is undergoing a massive transformation that extends from the mines to the power plants, from Ordos to Shanghai.
The nation is on track to overdeliver on the emissions reduction commitments it put forward under the Paris climate agreement, and making coal cleaner is an integral part of the process.
From a climate perspective, the ideal scenario would be for China to shut down all of its coal-fired power plants and switch over to clean energy full stop. In reality, China’s energy economy is a massive ship that cannot turn on a dime.
The shift toward renewables is happening: China’s Paris commitment includes a promise to install 800 gigawatts to 1,000 gigawatts of new renewable capacity by 2030, an amount equivalent to the capacity of the entire U.S. electricity system.
While China and the United States have roughly the same land mass, however, China has 1.3 billion people to the United States’ 325 million.
It needs an electricity system that is much larger, so adding the renewable equivalent of one entire U.S. electricity system is not enough to replace coal in the near to medium term.
To bridge the gap, China is rolling out new technologies to drastically reduce local air pollution and climate emissions from the nation’s remaining coal power plants.
U.S. renewable energy has made impressive strides in recent years
“According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, solar power employs more people than coal, oil and gas combined.
Last year, solar power accounted for 43 percent of the Electric Power Generation sector’s workforce, while fossil fuels combined employed 22 percent. The statistic will be welcomed with open arms by those trying to refute Donald Trump’s assertion that renewable energy projects are bad news for the U.S. economy.
Around 374,000 people were employed in solar energy, according to the report while generation through fossil fuels had a workforce of just over 187,000. The solar boom can be attributed to construction work associated with expanding generation capacity.
The report states that the employment gap is actually growing with net coal generation decreasing 53 percent over the last 10 years. During the same period of time, electricity generation through gas expanded 33 percent while solar went up by an impressive 5,000 percent.” — Niall McCarthy | Statista
Solar Power and Wind Power combine to provide 475,545 U.S. jobs — while Nuclear Power and Fossil FuelPower generation combine to provide only 255,293 U.S. jobs — but in recent years the Fossil Fuel industry gets 4 times more subsidy than Renewable Energy
Renewable Energy = Clean Air and Twice as many Jobs on 1/4 the Subsidy!
Here is a look at historical U.S. federal subsidies paid from 1918 to 2009 for various energy producers.
What Do Americans Think About Fossil Fuel vs. Renewable Energy?
Solar power and wind power (alone!) employ almost twice as many Americans as all nuclear and all fossil fuel power plants combined, but renewable energy gets only one-quarter of the subsidies in from 2010 onward.
Which might be a factor in the minds of Americans who look forward to renewable energy meeting their future energy demand.
Renewable Energy Continues to Grow in the U.S.
Despite the low subsidy amounts paid to renewable energy in the United States, non-hydropower energy continues on its growth trajectory and it’s now cheaper to build new solar capacity, than to build new coal capacity.
New Solar Now Cheaper Than New Coal
Costs for new solar power plants continue to plummet (without subsidy) vs. new coal power plants (with a small subsidy) is reflected in the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) per Kilowatt Hour price.
Billions of Gallons of Water Used Monthly by Conventional Energy
Many coal-fired power plants and several nuclear power plants produce well over 1000MW (1 GW) of electricity and it is easy to extrapolate their water usage.
For instance, a 1.6 GigaWatt(GW) coal-fired power plant (for the purposes of this discussion there’s a 1.6GW coal-fired power plant in Texas) uses 1,760,000 gallons of water per hour, while an equivalent-sized nuclear power plant uses 1,280,000 gallons of water per hour.
Meanwhile, a natural-gas-fired power plant producing the same 1.6GW of electricity would consume 480,000 gallons per hour, while a 1.6GW solar or wind power would consume zero gallons per hour.
Of course hydro-power does not consume any water during its decades of reliable power production, water merely falls through turbines and back into the river a bit further downstream — although during the construction of the dam, spillways, and hydro-electric turbine rooms, millions of gallons of water are used to make the concrete.
The Future of Energy in the United States
Renewable generation capacity expected to account for most 2016 capacity additions in the U.S.
The chart below shows just how much wind power in the United States has grown in recent years.
The chart below shows the expected growth of solar photovoltaic power in the United States (does not include solar thermal)
The chart below displays total utility-scale capacity additions from 2010 to 2016. For the third consecutive year, more than half of the capacity additions are renewable technologies, especially wind and solar.
From 2013 through 2040, U.S. electricity demand is expected to grow approximately 1 trillion kiloWatt hours(kWh) with natural gas and renewable energy showing steady growth, while coal-fired power generation and nuclear power show slight declines according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
If the United States converted their existing coal-fired power generation to natural gas by 2020, the U.S. could easily meet every international and domestic clean air target until 2050 as coal burns 10,000 times ‘dirtier’ (anthracite, or black coal) to 1,000,000 times ‘dirtier’ (lignite, or brown coal) when compared to natural gas.
It goes without saying that if the United States replaced coal-fired power generation with renewable energy, it would surpass every U.S. international and domestic clean air target, lower U.S. heathcare and infrastructure spending by billions of dollars annually, save the U.S. billions of gallons of fresh water per month, provide millions of good-paying jobs for American workers — and prove the United States is still an exceptional power in the 21st-century. Not bad!