Renewable Energy Pathways to Carbon Neutrality in China

California-China Climate Institute, Power Transformation Lab, Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy

China has announced ambitious climate policy goals of reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.1 To achieve these goals, it is crucial to decarbonize the largest carbon- emitting source, the power sector, which further enables the electrification of other sectors such as transportation, industry, and buildings. This process requires a large increase in low-carbon renewable energy and complementary infrastructure, including storage and transmission. While these long-term objectives are clear, the deployment structure, pace, and distributional impacts are uncertain. To address this gap, we developed a novel modeling approach with a high spatial and temporal resolution to identify feasible and efficient pathways for deploying renewables, storage systems, and transmission lines, by decade, from 2020 to 2060.2 From a policy-making perspective, understanding low-carbon pathways provides national and subnational governments information needed to anticipate, plan for, and address a wide range of bottlenecks that will arise with this unprecedented transformation. Our analysis helps support a more effective, efficient, and equitable clean energy transition for China.

Energy Transition: Structure and Pace The annual capacity additions of wind and solar will need to increase from around 70 gigawatts (GW) per year in the first decade (2020-2030) to 210-300 GW per year in the last decade before its carbon neutrality goal (2050-2060), while total installed capacities reach 2100-3200 GW by 2040, 3300-4800 GW by 2050, and 5200-5300 GW by 2060. Integrating these variable energy resources into the grid requires storage and transmission lines to address inter-regional imbalances and inter-temporal variations. Annual storage additions increase from 105-173 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year in the first decade to 180-260 GWh per year in the last decade, while the transmission network expands at rates of 13-16 GW/year (2020-2030), 13-38 GW/year (2030-2040), 18-24 GW/year (2040-2050), and 5-35 GW/year (2050-2060). Historical rates of manufacturing capabilities are likely to be sufficient to meet domestic demand, though crucially depending on the scale of clean energy technology exports.

Geographic Distribution The geographical distributions of different technologies over four decades are highlighted in Summary For Policymakers (SPM) Table 1. Our results demonstrate, under feasible and efficient pathways, that utility-scale and distributed solar will start in the north and west regions of the country due to higher capacity factors, and then extend to major demand centers starting from the next decade (2030-2040). This shift is largely driven by renewable cost declines and high transmission costs. Notably, distributed solar will be more prominent along the coast since the costs will become similar to western regions over time. In addition, onshore wind has a wide footprint both in northern China and along the coast, while continuous cost declines will incentivize the deployment of offshore wind in coastal provinces. Relatively high transmission costs drive renewable deployment in lower-quality regions such as eastern China, but low-cost storage alters this dynamic by allowing renewable deployment in high-quality regions such as northern China in later decades. This suggests that regional prioritizations and renewable targets at the provincial level will be valuable for guiding local governments and sustaining the current deployment momentum.

Land Use, Economic Impacts, and Electricity Market Challenges Solar deployment will exhaust the majority (51-82%) of suitable land in eastern provinces by 2060, while wind will significantly impact coastal province lands (14-48%), driven by promising renewable energy potentials and proximity to demand. While further guidance on siting and permitting from the national government is needed, local governments should establish project pathways and regional standards for co-location uses to reduce project uncertainties and mitigate land use impacts. Furthermore, as the transmission network becomes more interconnected, the total trading volume will likely see a three-fold increase by 2060. Efficient inner- and inter-regional trading mechanisms are thus essential in integrating renewables and reducing system costs.

Policy Recommendations National and subnational governments have a strong role to play in achieving China’s clean energy transition. To address large challenges and uncertainties, we identify near- and long-term priorities to design and implement supporting policy programs to ensure goals are met over time. The recommendations are highlighted in SPM Table 2.

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Recommended citation:

Zhang, Z., Zhu, Z., Gordon, J., Lu, X., Zhang, D., & Davidson, M. R. (2023). Renewable Energy Pathways to Carbon Neutrality in China. California-China Climate Institute.