Back in September, Chinese president Xi Jinping garnered a huge amount of attention and no small number of headlines on the global stage when he announced that Beijing’s new five-year plan to bring down the nation’s hefty carbon emissions would be far more ambitious than China had previously promised. In an address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Xi announced that China, home to the second-largest economy in the world, would see peak CO2 emissions by 2030 and bring its carbon footprint all the way down to zero by just 2060–a lofty goal to say the least. The move spawned a flurry of think pieces about China’s motivations and the credibility of these claims. It seems pretty clear that Beijing’s main motivator for curbing emissions is not the environment, but cleaning up China’s energy act and thereby weaning the country off of fossil fuel imports will go a long way toward shoring up the nation’s energy independence and energy security, which ranks as one of the nation’s top priorities. Despite these lofty goals and even loftier rhetoric, however, China has yet to put it’s money where its mouth is when it comes to coal, which is seeing an uptick in some cash-strapped regions. And, further underlining the nation’s real bottom line when it comes to lowering carbon emissions, China has been building up coal-fired capacity overseas. In fact, China has been ramping up a whole lot of energy production capacity overseas, and especially in largely untapped markets in developing countries, to expand its energy and geopolitical influence.
Just last week, President Xi appeared to double down on China’s already lofty emissions curbing targets, claiming that China will cut carbon emissions by over 65% by 2030. “China will lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP [gross domestic product] by over 65 percent from the 2005 level, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25 percent, increase the forest stock volume by 6 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level, and bring its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1.2 billion kilowatts,” Xi was quoted as saying by Chinese state-owned and -run news outlet Xinhua.
While this move has been heavily criticized by energy experts as actually slowing China’s green energy transition despite rhetoric that suggests the opposite, the announcement did create some excitement in the tech sector and the energy storage industry, which is on the verge of going gangbusters. “China Vows Green Energy Boom, Triggering Race For Battery Tech” a Forbes headline proclaimed this week in response to President Xi’s statements and the storage sector’s immediate response.
While there’s a lot of credibility to the claims that China is not going far enough to scale back coal, in practical terms there will still be a considerable expansion of renewable energy in China, and therefore a huge expansion in demand for energy storage. “The amount of renewable energy that China’s people and businesses consume will jump to 25%” reports Forbes. “To that end, President Xi said that the total amount of wind and solar power that China generates will rise exponentially — from 500 million kilowatts to 1.2 billion kilowatts in a decade.” This means that China will need up to 20% storage capacity–music to the energy storage industry’s ears.
Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energies like wind and solar are variable, meaning that they depend on outside factors like weather for their production, which can fluctuate greatly. Solar only generates power during daylight and only reaches its maximum production potential on sunny days, and wind power only works when it’s windy, but those of us living in developed countries expect our energy supply to be constant. This requires energy from wind and solar to be stored until it’s needed, keeping the energy flow to the grid steady and constant.
Currently, energy storage depends on batteries, but according to many in the tech and storage sectors, energy storage batteries will soon be a thing of the past. They’re expensive and they’re not a long-term solution–they wear out relatively quickly. That’s why there’s a race to introduce new, more practical, more durable solutions. One of the frontrunners to meet these criteria is hydrogen storage. There’s also pumped hydropower, thermal energy, and mechanical storage. And right now, it’s a race to the finish line for one of these technologies to rise to the top in time to step into the massive emerging market in the East.