Friday, January 6, 2017

China invests billions in renewable energy in fight against air pollution

Jeremy Koh, Channel NewsAsia

06 Jan 2017

BEIJING: iPhone manufacturer Apple is building a 20-megawatt solar power station in Qiongxi town in China’s Sichuan province. It is the first solar project the company has built outside the United States, and it will be co-owned by Sichuan Shengtian New Energy Development Company and Apple.

At an investment value of US$39 million, the project is located at about 3,500m above sea level - and one of the reasons it is sited there is because the place receives abundant sunshine annually.

But being located on such high ground presents its own challenges;  workers, for instance, have to deal with altitude sickness.

“There are lots of challenges for the workers,” said Liao Yunwei, station manager at the Qiongxi Power Station.

“There are lots of challenges in terms of living here, especially in winter. We’re not from the highlands, so after coming here, we have adapt to the conditions here. Can we be in our best condition to work?"

But the choice of the site is in line with the government’s efforts to protect farms from urban encroachment.

“We are doing it on barren hills and slopes,” said Feng Yu, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Aba People’s government. “This way, we don’t have to use our arable grassland or farmland.”

Solar power plants like those in Aba are cropping up across the country, thanks to loans and tax incentives under China’s latest five-year development plan.

Under the plan, China is set to triple its solar capacity by 2020, bringing the country’s installed solar power to more than 140 gigawatts. And on Thursday (Jan 5), the National Energy Administration said the country will invest US$361 billion in renewable power generation between 2016 and 2020.

The latest pledge to boost clean energy use came as heavy air pollution returned over the New Year, grounding flights and shutting highways in worst-hit northern China. The burning of coal and other fossil fuels during winters is said to be the main contributor to the toxic air.

“There’s been a big problem with air pollution in recent years in the big cities as well as tier 2 and tier 3 cities,” said Yuan Ying, a Climate & Energy Assistant Manager at Greenpeace said.

“So now it’s becoming a major drive from the bottom up and also from the top down to try and reduce dependency on coal consumption and to promote renewable energy growth.”

But solar capacity is still only a small fraction of China’s total energy portfolio. And China still burns more coal than any other nation. Moreover, the infrastructure for exporting solar power to the national grid is still not in place in many places, meaning that much of the potential energy goes to waste.

Ms Yuan added: “It’s really a long-standing systematic problem in China. So far our grid system is not very renewable friendly, which is also not very flexible. They’re used to pivoting around the coal and fossil fuels instead of renewable energy.”

But the need for China to switch to clean energy is more urgent than ever. Severe air pollution caused by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is stoking public discontent.

Air pollution will also lead to higher rates of premature deaths, eating into the country's already slowing economic growth.

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