In the wake of the partial meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan, China announced it would shelve plans for vast expansion of its nuclear power capacity, at least temporarily, until more stringent safety checks are performed. Construction will eventually resume, but with a potentially scaled-back role for nuclear power and with solar and wind energy picking up some of the slack. If nuclear remains a small fraction of China’s total energy mix (just 2 percent today, compared with America’s 20 percent), and Beijing looks to solar and wind for future energy growth in the era of climate change, the boost to those industries could make renewables cost-competitive with fossil fuels much earlier than previously projected.
The announcement marked a significant policy change. As recently as January, after reporting a breakthrough in nuclear fuel reprocessing technology, China reaffirmed its commitment to an expansion of its nuclear energy capacity that would be greater than that of all other countries combined. Construction began on twenty-seven reactors, adding to the existing thirteen. Another fifty-two were planned.
Just days after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, China passed into law its Twelfth Five Year Plan, which will serve as the country’s economic blueprint until 2015. The primary theme of the plan is sustainable development, with a high priority on securing nonfossil fuel energy sources. New policies include reducing carbon intensity by 17 percent by 2015. That means manufacturing entities would need to emit at least 17 percent less carbon in 2015 than they emitted in 2010 for the same amount of economic output. The plan also mandates ambitious energy-cutting targets, implementation of market mechanisms like cap and trade, and generation of 11.4 percent of total energy from nonfossil fuels by 2015, up from the current 8 percent. Pre-Fukushima, a sizable portion of that 11.4 percent was to come from nuclear sources. That target is being reconsidered.
The planners of the world’s second-largest economy are facing a labyrinth of competing constraints. China is the world’s largest user of energy, at a time of global shortages and high fossil fuel prices. The ruling party feels compelled to seek continued rapid economic growth in order to employ its people and maintain the image of a country steadily marching toward industrial modernization—lest the party lose its legitimacy and risk a Cairo-style uprising. So China must try to expand economic development, but not its greenhouse gas footprint. That’s like driving from New York to Boston and then figuring out how to use the same amount of gas to get from Boston to California. To achieve this, China will have to wring more energy from sources like wind and solar. And that is in fact the plan. The country’s National Energy Administration said in March that energy from solar sources may double over the next five years, from five to ten gigawatts.
Even if it doesn’t reduce the role of nuclear energy, China is emerging as a pacesetter in solar and wind technology. It currently produces half the world’s solar panels; in the city of Rizhao, population 3 million, 99 percent of homes have solar hot-water heaters. Last year China reportedly installed three times as much wind-power capacity as the United States, and the pace is expected to increase in the next decade. Even if China were to implement its most ambitious nuclear plan, total energy from that sector in 2020 would be about a third of projected wind output. Without nuclear expansion, wind and solar will need to make up the difference. Renewable energy authorities have indicated they are optimistic about their ability to meet expanded demand.