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China says fossil fuels should only be ‘replaced’ when renewable energy supplies become ‘reliable’

Five large coal-fired power projects have been given the go-ahead for construction since the beginning of the year, according to an article on the Chinese news portal Sohu. All of the newly approved projects would use highly efficient units that could save on energy and coal consumption, the article said. The piece was originally published by the Beijixing Electricity Net, an outlet focused on the energy and power sectors. Carbon Brief has tracked down the official announcements for the approval of all five projects.

WHERE: The approved projects will be situated in three provinces. All of their units are expected to use the ultra-supercritical technology. In Zhejiang – a populous and economically developed province on China’s eastern coast – two projects with a combined investment of 13bn yuan (£1.5bn) will be constructed, the local government announced last week. One of them will have two units – each with a capacity of one gigawatt (GW) – and the other will have two 660-megawatt (MW) units. Meanwhile, a company statement said last Tuesday that the authorities of Hunan – a landlocked province in southern China – had greenlighted a project containing two 1GW units. Furthermore, a £1.3bn project with four 660MW units was approved by the government of Guangxi – which borders Vietnam – its operator stated last month. A separate project with two 660MW units also received the authorisation in Guangxi in January and is already under construction, according to company statements.

WHEN: The news came as many small coal-fired power units had been closed down to protect the environment and reduce emissions, the Beijixing article noted. It added that their production capacity was expected to be replaced by “large-scale, clean coal-fired power projects”. Take Shandong province, for example. The eastern region had the largest installed coal power capacity in China as of the end of last year. But in the second half of 2021 alone, the local authority shut down 141 small coal power units, and the capacity of most of them was lower than 50MW, according to China Energy News. (This continues a trend that has been going on for several years across China.)

WHEN: The news also came as China’s State Council – the country’s administrative authority – showed its support for coal-fired power generators this week. According to state news agency Xinhua, the State Council instructed at a meeting on Monday: “Coal supply will be increased and coal-fired power plants will be supported in running at full capacity and generating more electricity, so as to meet the electricity needs for production and residential consumption.”

SIGNIFICANCE: Commenting on why China is still approving coal-fired power projects, Dr He Gang – assistant professor in the Department of Technology and Society at the Stony Brook University in the US – pointed to the “inertia” from the mentality of “coal power or no power” and the “impulse” of “local investment for the economy”.