Renewable energy development: Can China follow Germany?

Germany has proven that a transition to renewables is feasible. If China wants to follow, it will need strong political commitments to reconcile economic development and sustainability, argues Zhao Ang.

(Photo by the Danish Wind Industry, CC BY-NC 2.0)

China needs to reconcile economic and environmental goals. (Photo by the Danish Wind Industry, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Decoupling the increase in energy consumption and economic growth is the systematic approach to addressing many kinds of environmental challenges, including global warming, air pollution and ecological degradation. German lessons of how to develop renewable energy serves as an important test case for the rest of the world. In Germany, the share of renewable electricity doubled from 3% in 1991 to 6% in 2000, and lies currently at 28%. This growth in renewables has meant a sea change for German industry, where renewables – after twenty years of investment security – are playing an ever increasing important role in ensuring steady economic growth in the country.

As the largest energy consumer, greenhouse gas emitter and second biggest economy in the world, China aims to pursue a green economic development model by enacting a series of policy incentives and financial resources, such as a feed-in tariff scheme for wind power and solar electricity, to push its domestic renewable energy industry, particularly wind and solar PV. Still, China’s renewable energy development is far behind that of Germany when it comes to actual renewable energy contribution to the electricity mix. In 2012, renewable energies generated only 2.14% of the country’s total annual electricity generation, despite the rapid growth of wind power in 2005-2012 and the new renewable star, solar PV, since 2011 according to China’s Annual Statistics Briefing of Electricity Consumption 2012.

The economic benefits that Germany has obtained from a long-term commitment to renewable energy development could inspire China’s policy makers to take far-reaching policies to gain more ambitious and effective renewable energy growth in the next decade. From 1991 to 2012, German GDP per capita grew from US$22,600 to US$ 42,600 (computed based on the data from World Bank’s World Development Indicators), while the share of renewable electricity consumption in national electricity generation increased from 4.2% to 23.5% (computed based on the data from Energy Information Administration). In the meantime, German greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 22% since 1990. German renewable energy industry provided 371,400 jobs in 2013. Besides job creation, the renewable sector has brought many other significant benefits: it has prevented environmental damage, reduced energy imports as well as having positive public health impacts. After taking into account the initial cost of developing renewable energy, the net benefits exceeded 7 billion euro in 2011, representing about 0.2% of Germany’s GDP that year.

For China, it will not be easy to follow Germany’s ambitious renewable energy development. The main reason being the important differences between the two countries when it comes to their respective economic and energy structure. By 2030, China will probably still be in a process of industrialization with an increased energy demand, while Germany will have become a typical post-industrial economy with a well developed service sector and high-end manufacturing. China has an unhealthy share of coal in its power mix – a share that is still increasing – while Germany has a diversified energy system. However, time is running out for China to make a similar energy transition, particularly when the vast or unbearable social and environmental costs resulting from the economic boom from three decades are taken into account. The ongoing and deteriorating air pollution in so many large cities seem the most prominent warning for China to develop renewable energy more quickly and strongly. In the end, China might be not short of capacity but short of willingness to follow Germany’s example to transform its energy system away from one that is based on traditional fossil fuels.

Mr. Zhao Ang has worked in environmental protection field for 10 years in China. He focuses on energy transformation policy in China. Before co-founding REEI with Dr. Mao and Mr. Lin, he worked with Green Earth, Greenpeace and Windpower Intelligence on such issues as watershed conservation, coal power policy and wind power policy, respectively. Mr. Zhao holds an MSc. in Environmental Policy and Regulation from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a B.A. in Chinese Linguistics from Peking University.


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  1. CaptD says

    China is no different than the USA, since both countries have huge Energy demands that enriched those providing that energy!

    Coal is the lumbering Giant that has lots of friends in high places and as such will do everything it can to sugarcoat any restrictions that will “tend” to make things worse for their own Coal business interests.

    That said, the Solar handwriting is on the wall, and I expect to see not only BIG Coal but also BIG Nuclear Utilities start acquiring BIG Solar utility sized projects as fast as they can in order to provide their ratepayers with the appearance that they are starting to shift to GREEN generation; that is as long as they own the GREEN generation and it is not owned by the ratepayers themselves.

    To the BIG Utilities “Shared Generation” only equates to the different types of generation they own or control and does not include accepting any of their ratepayers own generation (via the GRID) at market prices because that would lead to what many predict as the “Utility Death Spiral”, as ratepayers start producing ever more of their own Energy.

    Posted before at:

  2. CaptD says

    China COULD follow Germany but to do so and still maintain their ever expanding Energy requirements would require a fundamental shift in their energy Politics since so many influential Party Members have “connections” to those in the Coal industry and left unsaid is that the Nuclear Industry also has deep ties to the Chinese Military Industrial Complex which (thankfully) Germany does not have.

    In short, China would have to have experience an “Energy Revolution” in order to shift its current 5, 10, 15, and other futuristic Energy plans in order even begin to catch up with Germany!

    Both Coal and especially Nuclear are both Yesterday’s DIRTY Energy since Coal visibly pollutes the air which cause huge health implications and the ☢ waste created by mining and/or using Nuclear is not GREEN.

 Also what is never mentioned is what happens when a nuclear power plant goes BAD (like Fukushima) then everyone including the nuclear industry just looks the other way… If China suffers a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster like Fukushima (for any reason) it will signal the end of the nuclear era, as then every reactor will be seen for what they really are, a nuclear accident waiting to happen!

    Everyone should be very proud of the huge Solar advances we have made to date and that includes everyone except those Leaders that are pushing Coal and/or Nuclear because of Profitganda*.

 Both China and France are now trying to get approval to fund building a nuclear project in the UK called Hinkley, which will then be guaranteed huge profits that UK Energy ratepayers will have to pay for generations at the very time that the cost of installing solar is dropping monthly globally!

    This “fixed” ☢ con game will be over soon, since ☢ energy will continue to become ever more expensive as compared to Solar generation which continues to drop in cost; just imagine what the costs of both will be in 10, 20 and 30 years from now, as these ☢ Utilities price themselves out of the Energy marketplace! 

    If the UK ratepayers were brilliant, they would scrap their Hinkley project AT ONCE and install as much Solar (of all flavors) as possible!

    BTW: The Queen owns massive amounts of Uranium deposits globally, so she has enough money to survive, even without Hinkley being built.


Profitganda is the use of phony “feel good” information to sell an idea, product or concept to the masses. 

    Partially posted on 9/7/14:

  3. photomofo says

    The author left out hydro when talking about how much renewable electricity China has. China will be over 20% renewable electricity in 2014.

  4. Guy Gadois says

    The UK would be stupid to follow Germany’s policy of increasing power prices with the highest CO2 output for 10 years.

  5. Guy Gadois says

    All very well, but the idea that nuclear waste is a big problem is simply bullshit. Fukushima, for example released ~520 EBq or radiation, the natural radiation of the ocean is 15500 EBq. So the ocean contains 30000x natural radiation than the Fukushima release.
    The total worldwide nuclear waste yearly production is estimated at 1.7 E9 TBq., still much less than the natural radiation in the ocean, or the top millimetre of global soil.
    An eminent group of scientists has recently opinioned “In the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
    They could be wrong, but the could be right too. Let’s keep going with nuclear and give consideration to turning them off, if possible, after the last coal fired power station is closed.

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