China doubles new renewable capacity in 2020, but continues to builds thermal plants

China more than doubled its construction of new wind and solar power plants in 2020 from a year earlier, government data showed, reflecting Beijing’s pledge to cut fossil fuel dependence and bring carbon emissions to a peak within a decade.

China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, added 71.67 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity last year, the most ever and nearly triple 2019’s levels, according to data released by the National Energy Administration (NEA) late Wednesday.

China’s 2020 figure is ahead of the 60.4 GW of new wind capacity added globally in 2019, according to data from the Global Wind Energy Council.

The rise came as Beijing announced an end to subsidies for new onshore wind power projects starting from 2021.

New solar power capacity also rebounded in 2020 to 48.2 GW after falling for two straight years, the data showed, beating an earlier industry estimate of 40 GW.

China had vowed to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its primary energy consumption to 15% by 2020 from just 6.8% in 2005, and President Xi Jinping said last month this figure would rise to 25% by 2030.

China would also take its total installed wind and solar capacity to 1,200 GW, he said. By the end of 2020, China had 281.5 GW of wind generation capacity, and 253.4 GW of solar generation capacity, the NEA data showed.

“China’s smashing wind power building records and continuing with strong solar growth makes the country a top destination for foreign clean energy investment,” said Jeanett Bergan, an executive of Norway’s largest pension fund KLP.

China continued to build new thermal power capacity in 2020, according to the data, with 56.37 GW the highest level since 2015. The NEA did not break down the figure into gas- and coal-fired power projects.

Studies have shown that China completed 11 GW of new coal-fired power capacity in the first half of 2020, and had an additional 53 GW in its planned project pipeline, 90% of the global total.

“China should just stop building coal-fired power plants as soon as possible. It’s the requirements of carbon neutrality targets and reducing financial risk among the power plants,” said Zou Ji, head of the Energy Foundation China.

Experts say average utilisation hours at coal-fired power plants are now less than 4,000 hours in China, well below the designed level of 5,500 hours, with grids prioritising cleaner alternative sources of electricity.