China’s renewable energy market does not need foreign technology and investment


China’s renewable energy market does not need foreign technology and money said Mark Hutchinson, vice president of APAC power and renewables consulting at global energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

“Right now, China’s renewable energy sector is government driven. Going forward, it will be more economically driven,” Hutchinson told CNBC at the Asian Clean Energy Summit in Singapore last Wednesday.

Many Chinese energy companies receive help from the government in the form of direct investments and large subsidies. But that will likely change soon, Hutchinson said.

Although China’s growth has slowed, he said, investors need to keep in mind that it’s part of the process for maturing economies.

“It’s nothing new in China. It’s growing slow. But even a 5% to 8% growth in China, in absolute terms, that’s still massive,” he said. According to a Reuters poll published in October, China’s third-quarter GDP is expected to grow 6.1%.

China’s self-sufficient renewable energy sector

Reuters reported that China’s total renewable power capacity rose 9.5% in the first six months of the year, hitting 750 gigawatts, as Beijing pushed for clean energy consumption as part of its anti-pollution campaign.

In the first half of the year, China added 1.82 gigawatts of hydropower capacity, 9.09 gigawatts of wind capacity and 11.4 gigawatts of solar capacity, the National Energy Administration said at a news briefing in early June.

Looking ahead, Hutchinson said he believes the main focus for the Chinese government is grid parity, as it tries to encourage more private players to participate.

“They’re reducing the subsidies because — the argument that they’re making is that, now solar and wind should be competing on their own merits and rather than be subsidized,” said the energy consultant.

But China’s renewable sector still does not have much foreign investment because it remains a less predictable operating environment, when compared with neighboring countries, he said. For example, Hutchinson said Thailand has not changed its power purchasing agreement in 20 years, whereas China often changes the rules, with little notice.

On top of that, Hutchinson explained that “the Chinese have their own homegrown technology in wind and solar, so there’s little room for foreign players to participate.” These companies also have “plenty of the liquidity in the banking system.”

“People outside of China often underestimate Chinese companies capabilities in the energy sector… they don’t need the financing or the technology,” said Hutchinson.

He said, during his 25 years working in Asia, he’s seen a dramatic improvement in Chinese technology in the sector.

“State-owned companies dominate the industry in China. They have good relationships and they’re rapidly improving their technology capabilities, and this makes it hard for international and private domestic players to compete… Ten years ago, the tech was bad. Wind turbines were falling off. But now (Chinese companies) are formidable competitors,” said the consultant.

He pointed out that of the world’s top wind turbine manufacturers, two out of the top five are Chinese — and about 95% of those turbines are installed domestically.

“Theoretically, there is room for foreigners and international players, but China has the technological capability… China does not need foreigners to build the market,” said Hutchinson.

Replacing coal

China is now the world’s largest consumer of energy, the largest producer and consumer of coal, and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to think tank China Power.

Wood Mackenzie’s Hutchinson said his firm sees China’s reliance on coal “peaking in the early 2020s.”

“They’re building new plants that are more efficient plants than the old ones. Burning less coal. And we’re seeing an increase in gas imports dramatically over the last few years,” said Hutchinson.

China is trying to decarbonize and is now “putting 30 to 40 gigawatts of renewables out every year… it’s a huge amount of power,” he added. He added that the country is rapidly building out solar and wind farms all across the country.

The key issue isn’t the efficiency of energy production, rather it is about energy storage, Hutchinson said.

He said, without proper battery storage or pump storage, it is unlikely China would be able to store enough energy to provide for the country and fully replace coal. Current storage systems are not sufficient to make coal replacement possible right now.

Once the storage shortage is addressed, he said, “it’s not a question of if, but when China will replace coal with renewables. But that is going to be a very long phase out.”

“Because the sun only shines during the day and the wind only blows at certain times. Until you get enough storage through chemical batteries or pump storage, then it will take a long time (to replace coal),” said Hutchinson.

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