Discover more from Sustainability by numbers
China is adding solar and wind faster than many of us realise: three charts that put it in perspective
China adds enough solar and wind every year to cover the total electricity use of major countries such as South Africa, Spain, and the UK.
China emits almost a third of the world’s CO2 emissions. Its transition to low-carbon energy matters a lot.
It usually comes under fire for its mammoth coal consumption. Indeed, it’s the world’s largest coal producer and even on a per capita basis, it’s near the top of the rankings.
But what’s promising – and should get more attention – is how rapidly China is scaling solar and wind power. It can be hard to wrap your head around these numbers because they’re usually reported in abstract units of gigawatts or gigawatt-hours.
Here I want to put China’s renewables numbers into context using three charts.
1) China adds enough new solar and wind every year to cover the total electricity use of many major economies such as Australia and the UK
Let’s start by looking at how much solar and wind electricity China adds per year. This is not the total amount of solar and wind energy that it produces, but the amount that is added each year. Here we’re not looking just at added capacity, the amount installed per gigawatt (GW), but the change in actual electricity generated.
This is shown in the chart.
In 2023, I’ve estimated that China will add 359 terawatt-hours.3 That’s more than Spain or the United Kingdom's total electricity use.
2) China’s total electricity generation from solar and wind is enough to match the total electricity of some of the world’s largest economies
We just looked at how much China adds every year. Let’s look at how much solar and wind electricity it generates in total: that’s the running sum of what it has added.
Here, the figure for 2022 is an estimate, but I expect it to be not far off. Figures for 2023 are preliminary based on early projections of what China will add this year from industry reports [these won’t be perfect but should give us a reasonable estimate].
In the chart, I’ve shown how China’s solar and wind output stacks up next to the electricity use of some of the world’s largest countries.
It’s producing enough to power Canada or Brazil twice over. Enough to power Japan or Russia. And it’s not far from matching India’s total electricity use.
That’s staggering: if some of the world’s biggest countries had added solar and wind at the rate of China, they could have fully decarbonised their electricity grids by now. [Yes, I know it’s not as simple as that because they’d need energy storage etc. but it gives us some useful comparisons of the scale].
3) China could cover its entire residential electricity use from solar and wind
How does China’s solar and wind compare to its own electricity use?
In 2022, China consumed 8,600 TWh of electricity.
That means around 14.5% of its electricity came from solar and wind. Still relatively small, but growing quickly. This also puts China’s total electricity use into perspective. It produces enough solar and wind to power many of the world’s largest economies, but this is still only around one-seventh of its own demand.
But China does (almost) produce enough solar and wind to cover all of its homes. Residential electricity use is around 1,350 terawatt-hours.
That’s slightly more than its solar and wind output in 2022. 2023 could be the year that solar and wind surpass it.
This also puts China’s electricity use into perspective: industry dominates its energy demand. Just 16% of China’s electricity is used in its homes.
China’s rapid rollout of wind and solar should be a push for other countries to do more
But there is still a big ambition gap between China and the rest of the world. It’s adding renewables up to 50 times faster than other major economies. It’s certainly not 50 times as rich.
Many of the world’s richest countries are lagging behind. This ‘ambition gap’ is something I might tackle in a future post.
Subscribe to get new posts in your inbox.
A terawatt-hour is one trillion watt-hours. Or alternatively, 1000 gigawatt-hours (GWh).
I’ve calculated these numbers for 2023 using industry reports of expected capacity additions for solar and wind.
I’ve assumed that China will add 57 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity, based on IEA projections.
And it’s projected to add between 95 and 120 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity in 2023, according to its solar manufacturing association. I’ve assumed an addition of 105 GW – around the midpoint of this range.
Both of these figures seem very plausible given its added capacity in previous years.
To convert these capacity additions into changes in energy output, I’ve assumed that both solar has a capacity factor of 20%, and wind has one of 35%. We then get electricity output by multiplying:
Solar electricity (in gigawatt-hours) = Capacity (GW) * 20% * 24 * 365
Wind electricity (in gigawatt-hours) = Capacity (GW) * 35% * 24 * 365