To US Energy Secretary Rick Perry:
You recently claimed that you “hope China will step in and attempt to take the [clean energy] mantle away” from the United States, saying that “It would be a good challenge for them.” Additionally, you insisted, despite President Donald Trump announcing to the world that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, that “the United States is not backing down from its role as a leader in cleaning up the planet.”
These are nice-sounding platitudes, but I am afraid I must be the bearer of bad news. The United States hasn’t been a leader in “cleaning up the planet” or been in possession of the clean energy “mantle” for some time.
In 2016 alone, China installed 34.2 gigawatts (GW) of new solar PV capacity, bringing its cumulative capacity up to 77.42 GW. China also installed a total of 23 GW of new wind energy, which was in fact down on its 2015 levels when it installed 30.5 GW, bringing its cumulative wind capacity up to 168.7 GW.
Comparatively, the United States only installed 14.5 GW of new solar capacity in 2016 — bringing its cumulative capacity up to 42.4 GW — and adding 8.2 GW of new wind capacity brings its cumulative capacity up to 82 GW.
In the first quarter of this year, China has already installed 7.21 GW of new solar and increased its wind energy capacity by 13% year-over-year. China is also expected to install in excess of 30 GW of new solar capacity this year and recently activated the world’s largest floating solar power plant.
Meanwhile, China is making huge strides in reducing its reliance on coal and its emissions levels. In March, China’s National Bureau of Statistics showed that the country’s total energy consumption increased by 1.4% in 2016, but the country’s coal consumption declined by 4.7%. This is not the first time this has happened either, with coal consumption declining by 3.7% in 2015 as well, at the same time as net coal imports dropped by 30.4%. China’s CO2 emissions declined by 1% in 2016, despite the fact the country’s economy grew by an impressive 6.7%.
To be fair, the United States did manage to decrease its emissions by 3%, though its economy only grew by 1.6% in 2016.
Looking forward, China is doing a tremendous amount to reduce its reliance on coal. In 2016, Chinese coal plant permits declined by 85%, and in fact cancelled the construction of 17 GW worth of coal-fired power plants in October of 2016, followed a few months later by the suspension of an additional 120 GW worth of coal-fired power plants. A report published in May by the Climate Action Tracker actually sheds a little more light on the whole situation and showed that not only has China’s coal consumption been in decline since 2013 but that China (and India) are likely to “overachieve” for their Paris Agreement climate pledges.
“Five years ago, the idea of either China or India stopping — or even slowing — coal use was considered an insurmountable hurdle, as coal-fired power plants were thought by many to be necessary to satisfy the energy demands of these countries,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics. “Recent observations show they are now on the way toward overcoming this challenge.”
Another report, this time in April from Greenpeace East Asia, showed that the growth of China’s wind and solar PV industries could grow to such an extent that they are able to replace fossil fuel energy sources by up to 300 million tonnes of standard coal per year by 2030.
As for the United States, despite attempts by your own agency, and President Trump’s proclamations and attempts, the US coal industry is set to continue a historic decline. Specifically, coal consumption is already down 28% in the US over the past decade, declining to 738 million tonnes in 2015 from 1.02 billion tonnes in 2005. Current estimates for the decline of coal consumption in 2016 range from 26 million tonnes (a 3.5% drop on 2015 numbers) to 57 million tonnes (a 7.7% drop). Further, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) expects coal consumption in 2017 to decline to 675 million tonnes, a 6% drop on 2016 levels, or around 40 million tonnes. While the IEEFA’s long-term estimate sees coal consumption actually rising somewhat through 2020, to around 736 million tonnes per year, before sliding into a “steady, long-term decline through 2050” which will see it drop 464 million tonnes per year.
In fact, despite Donald Trump’s attempts to grow the coal industry, the US coal industry is losing jobs at an astounding rate, and coal plant closures are similarly accelerating, with eight already this year.
Mr Perry, while I appreciate the optimism of your rhetoric, I think it is time you faced up to reality. The United States is not the world leader in much of anything, these days, not least of all clean energy development, coal and emissions decreases, or helping the environment at all. Further, what leadership the United States can claim as its own is almost entirely restricted to states, cities, and individual institutions.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
CleanTechnica Holiday Wish Book
Our Latest EVObsession Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.