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China is leading the way in electrification, too

An electric bus charging at a depot in China, which is leading the way in electrification.
An electric bus in China. Photo: Dreamstime.

China, which is comfortably the world’s largest supplier and consumer of renewable energy, is leading the way in electrification as well, according to an analysis by nonprofit research group RMI.

The world’s second-largest economy is rapidly transforming itself into “the first major electrostate,” RMI says in its report on the global “cleantech revolution.” Electricity now accounts for close to a third of final energy consumption, a metric that includes things like gas for heating appliances and petrol for cars.

Why it matters: Replacing fossil fuels with electricity in key industries such as transport, heating, and manufacturing is seen as critical to the fight against climate change. Electrification also vastly improves energy efficiencies, thereby reducing how much energy the world needs. As an example, electric cars convert roughly 80% of the energy they consume into mechanical energy — motion — versus a conversion rate of just 20% for conventional fuel-powered models.

The latest: China has been electrifying its economy at a rate of 10 percentage points per decade, according to RMI. That’s nine times faster than the rest of the world.

This is partly thanks to the rapid electrification of the country’s transport sector. In March, electric models, including plug-in hybrids, accounted for more than 40% of overall car sales for the first time, according to data from the China Passenger Car Association.

Key drivers: China’s aggressive electrification strategy is partly linked to efforts to shore up energy security.

The world’s biggest consumer of energy lacks its own oil and gas, meaning it has long been reliant on volatile imports. As such, “cleantech is a path to leadership, clean air, and zero emissions,” RMI says.

Further, electricity is cheaper than gas in China, unlike in the US and some other countries.

Follow the leader: RMI says China has sparked a “race to the top” as other nations seek to compete in the cleantech industry, which now accounts for 10% of global GDP growth.

Because of this, the global electrification rate is likely to more than double to 0.5% a year by 2030 “as transport joins the party, and success in China drags up electrification rates elsewhere.”

Yes, but: Electrification of transport and other industries adds to power demand, making it more difficult to push fossil fuels out of the electricity mix.

Nevertheless, analysts say there is growing evidence that China is past peak emissions in its power sector — and economy-wide.

Thermal power output was down 4.3% in May compared to a year before, according to the country’s statistics office. That was due to a surge in hydroelectric and solar generation.

According to data from Ember, the share of coal in China’s electricity mix edged below 55% for the first time ever in May.

Tags: China, Cleantech, Electric vehicles, Electrification, electrostate
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