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21 January 2021

China’s provinces issue targets for upcoming Five-Year Plan

All of China’s 31 provinces have now issued renewable energy targets for the 14th Five-Year Plan which will be brought into force this March, lasting from 2021 to 2025. There’s 316.5 GW targeted from just 16 provinces, suggesting that the next Five-Year Plan will start with 600 GW to 700 GW already on the cards just from local targets; even Tibet has a 10 GW solar target.

It’s the types of renewables being aimed for which are perhaps more interesting than the raw numbers. Where the current 13th Five-Year Plan has been referred to as a “pilot project phase” in some Chinese media, the upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan period has been called the “implementation phase” in contrast.

A lot of new renewable energy approaches have been built out for the first time in the past couple years in China – ranging from overtaking the UK as the world’s biggest offshore wind market, to a score of concentrated solar plants with different designs, to demand-response and virtual power plants, to a nascent and mostly ignored energy credit system that’s not yet worth buying into, to hybrid wind-solar multi-GW projects, to the past year’s adoption of battery energy storage requirements for solar plants (typically at most 10% of capacity with 2-hour duration), to the adoption of UHVDC transmission lines.

Two industries which haven’t been seen much yet, but will be in the next five years are hydrogen and EVs. Seven provinces have given special mention to EVs, which the furthest north-east, Heilongjiang, mentioning a “State Grid Internet of Vehicles”.

The province-level targets and promises for the upcoming period reflect the different terrains across China – the north-western desert arc from Tibet to Inner Mongolia is focusing on solar-plus-storage as well as some wind, and may see a resurgence of development thanks to long-distance transmission lines. If Concentrated Solar, with its all-night thermal energy storage takes off, it’s those provinces which will benefit.

Hydropower-rich Sichuan is interested in floating solar, as is coastal Jiangsu with its many lakes. Henan and Shanxi will emphasise manufacturing.

Jilin, Liaoning, and Hebei, on the northern coastline, are pursuing solar-powered hydrogen production; Baicheng City is planning a 3 GW solar-hydrogen complex, with a pilot project to complete this year. Guangdong, the south-coastal province alongside Hong Kong and Macau, is also going to be a hub for the national hydrogen industry. These four are just the most prominent provinces for hydrogen, being coastal – the multi-GW hybrid wind-solar complexes of the north and west in general will also produce green hydrogen. Even desert Xinjiang has one such planned, relying on a reservoir.

Meanwhile Henan and Fujian, both surrounded by metropolises, place emphasis on the proper marketing and storage of energy.

Inner Mongolia has proven to be a bit of a black sheep. While the province has seen a big upswing in development recently, with good natural conditions, but relatively less distance that has be covered by transmission lines to the cloudy heartlands, its provincial government is pursuing a coal-led recovery, with 10.1 GW of coal plants approved (twice the 2019 figure), which together with newly approved industries will consume 80 million tons of coal a year. Bear in mind that two thirds of 2020’s nationwide power development was clean energy.

There’s two reasons for this behavior on the part of Inner Mongolia, which is China’s biggest coal-producing region. One is that despite what you might assume about China’s government form, the country is decentralized enough for provincial governments to put the interests of their province ahead of the others on many issues, even in this crude manner. Partly this is because their performance is judged more by GDP and other immediate measures, more than by environmental concerns.

The other reason is, paradoxically, that the looming 2060 target means any coal developments which do occur from this point on, have to turn a profit ahead of the tightening screws of policy. Coal plants can last 40 years, but it’ll take far less time than that for China to adopt a carbon tax. It may even do so ahead of the USA.