ENERGY HUNGRY: The growth in energy use in China will continue for decades as more people rise out of poverty but could level out as soon as 2030, according to a new analysis Image: Base64/CarolSpears via WIkimedia Commons
China's energy use should flatten out sometime around 2030, with a similar leveling off of its greenhouse gas emissions, a federal researcher said yesterday.
Mark Levine, director of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said his research bucks the mainstream view that China's energy appetite is swelling indefinitely.
Instead, as Levine and others argue in a report released yesterday, China will reach "saturation" around 2030 -- it simply won't have to make appliances, roads and raw materials at the pace it needs to right now.
"The punchline, obviously, is that China in the long term will be far less demanding of energy than I think most people believe," Levine said in remarks to an Energy Department conference. "And for that reason, I found that this exercise of looking beyond 2030 was extremely useful."
Levine said that over the next 40 years, the demand for appliances like dryers, dishwashers and toasters will flatten, and at the same time, these appliances will get more energy efficient, helping to level off the energy used by Chinese homes.
There are a few big "ifs" in Levine's scenarios, though: For one, China's torrid economic growth starts sloping down this decade. Currently chugging along at roughly 10 percent growth a year, it slows to less than 8 percent this decade and slumps to about 3 percent in 2030.
A shift away from coal?
Secondly, China makes a drastic -- and mostly unexplained -- switch away from coal. About three-quarters of its power came from coal in 2005, helping propel it to recently become the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But in Levine's paper, this will drop as low as 30 percent by 2050, thanks to a ramp-up of nuclear and renewable power.
What could drive this? The report points to China's aggressive goals on energy intensity and carbon dioxide intensity by 2020; in the past, Levine and other scholars have also pointed out China's difficulty in feeding its prodigious appetite for coal.
Trevor Houser, a partner at the Rhodium Group, told the EIA conference that China will face a tough road to meet its ambitious targets.
The 12th five-year plan, released in March, proposes to source 11.4 percent of China's energy from "non-fossil" sources. Houser said that's a staggering goal that will require about 320 gigawatts of new nuclear, hydro and renewable power in the next decade. When he studied what a generic cap-and-trade policy would achieve, it ticked in at about 66 GW.
That's if the economy grows about 7 percent; if it grows at 10 percent, the economy will need 480 GW. This pace would be the equivalent of building a Three Gorges Dam each year and adding 150 GW of wind a year -- both of which have their costs.
"I think they can meet the targets, but it will be hard," said another panelist, William Chandler, president of Transition Energy International. Chandler sells cogeneration equipment in China, and he's been flummoxed by how effective the heavy hand of Beijing can be.
The power of command and control
He said provincial governments have often told factories in recent years that if they want to get their business licenses renewed, they'll have install some new energy-efficiency technology, such as Chandler's.
"We talk to customers whose competitors have been shut down because they didn't do those things," he said. "It's really extraordinary the toughness of the command-and-control measures that have been put into place over that period."
Chandler said he fears that even as China cleans up its energy sector, American help will tail off. He referred to recent remarks by Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf (R), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies.
In the budget compromise reached this month for fiscal 2011, Wolf inserted two lines cutting funding for some scientific collaborations between the United States and China, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science Insider.
"We don't want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of our technology, and we have nothing to gain from dealing with them," Wolf told Science Insider. "And frankly, it boils down to a moral issue ... would you have a bilateral program with Stalin?"