Green China Rising

By Stefan Sjöström, President, International on May 15, 2018
Stefan Sjöström
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2018 is the Year of the Dog in China. Every one of the 12 animals on the Chinese calendar represents attributes that the country’s 1.3 billion people celebrate and aspire to achieve during the year. According to this ancient tradition, the dog symbolizes honesty and loyalty. Those born in the Year of the Dog are thought to have the noblest human traits and possess a strong sense of responsibility.

Arguably, the world can celebrate alongside China during the Year of the Dog. The country is awakening to the shared sense of responsibility toward environmental sustainability to accompany the meteoric rise of its economy over the past two decades. Today, we explore one of China’s initiatives to lower the impact that its industrial and social machine has on a planetary level. If the past can be a compass to the future regarding Chinese determination, we may be witnessing the rise of one of the greenest countries on Earth.

Green China Rising.

Global Energy

China has never thought on a small scale. The country’s large geographic and population size have forced them to think big. In fact, China is the longest-lasting country that civilization has ever seen. Based on this “national DNA,” it seems quite fitting that a recent article on China’s energy vision begins by saying, “The boldest plan to achieve the targets set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement comes from China.”

The Project Syndicate article explores how China’s geography has forced the country to come up with creative solutions to supply their cities with more sustainable energy. Specifically, the country’s wind and solar supplies are located on China’s western side, while the largest concentration of its population resides in the east. The solution to take renewables thousands of miles to where they are needed the most, with minimal waste along the way, has been the creation of a massive electricity distribution grid. This system is built on what is called Ultra-High-Voltage (UHV) transmission. UHV is grid technology that minimizes the loss of heat as electricity travels across cables through one of the world’s largest countries. According to the article, “Long-distance UHV transmission is efficient and economical, and China has made major strides in developing this technology.”

The “boldness” that the article referenced in the opening comes from China’s proposed Global Energy Interconnection initiative. The plan envisions the creation of a global smart grid that incorporates the elements they have successfully applied at home. This encompasses a system based on renewables, delivering power using ultra-high-voltage transmission, that incorporates artificial intelligence to manage energy supply and demand. As the Project Syndicate article points out, the plan “represents the boldest global initiative by any government to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. It is a strategy fit for the scale of the most important challenge the world faces today.” In support of its vision, China has created the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO), which aims to “bring together national governments, grid operators, academic institutions, development banks, and United Nations agencies to launch the global renewable energy grid.”

A Blueprint for Sustainable Cities and Countries

The main reason that an effort like this can work on a global scale is that sustainable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are variable, which means no solar energy at night, and no wind energy on a calm day. Since the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing in some part of the world, a smart global grid can direct this energy to where it is needed. This will help to “smooth” power fluctuations that have historically forced utilities to rely on fossil fuels.

While China’s GEIDCO, as the article points out, “is a strategic fit for the unprecedented scale of the energy transformation facing our generation,” its model can be copied by cities―which account for the bulk of the world’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions―right away. Currently available technologies like UHV transmission, which enables the sourcing of wind and solar from places far away with minimal loss in transit, coupled with emerging technologies, like Hydrogen 2.0, which can be used to supply affordable clean energy from hydrogen on-demand and on-location, can provide a viable answer. Technologies like these could help enable cities and countries to meet their commitments to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding traditional expensive trade-offs between economic growth and sustainability.

Beyond Just Planning

Unlike other grand energy plans that never materialized, China is walking the talk. Grand plans like China’s Global Energy Interconnection initiative are backed by the fact that, “in 2017 nearly half of the world’s new renewable energy investment of $279.8 billion came from China,” as Quartz pointed out in a recent article. They further noted that for every dollar the U.S. adds in sustainable energy, China adds three. This widening clean energy investment gap has been going on for nearly a decade and highlights the fact that one of the world’s largest polluters may soon reach the tipping point and become a green economy.

Although China has a long way to go before it can call itself sustainable when it comes to the environment, it seems like they are taking honesty (one of the Dog’s salient attributes according to ancient Chinese tradition) seriously when it comes to their environmental impact. China’s rise, after all, can be a good thing for our planet.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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