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Renewable energy is the future for China

China should dump nuclear power and forge ahead with a programme to develop its renewable energy capabilities, says He Zuoxiu, whose vision of the future includes the positioning of solar power plants across a tract of desert the size of the UK.

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Nuclear advocates talk of a three-stage progression that leads ultimately to controlled fusion, the gold standard of nuclear technology due to its inexhaustibility. Undermining the development of the industry, however, are constraints – mainly natural and economic – which mean that China will not be able to choose the nuclear option.


Crucially, deposits of uranium, which are needed to fuel reactors during phases one and two of the three-phase transformation, are only modest in China - sufficient only to produce a fraction of China’s energy needs over a 40-year period. Phase two fast neutron reactors, which use uranium sixty times more efficiently, improve on the returns currently achieved by thermal reactors, but overall power output would still fall 50% short of demand if China is to fully industrialise.

Cost, too, is a significant factor for planners to consider. Tomorrow’s fast neutron reactors will produce energy that is three to four times more expensive than thermally-produced current that is currently produced. Meanwhile, controlled fusion – the last of the three phases – will raise costs by a factor of ten and, according to the most optimistic of estimates, this type of reactor will not be commercially viable until 2050. Disposal costs, too, are often underestimated, and the technology for doing so often neglected.

Boundless energy

Supporters of renewable energy also plot a three-stage progression for the development of the industry – from hydroelectric power, to wind, and finally to solar – and China is already in the midst of stages one and two.

Dams alone already produce 22 times more energy than thermal reactors at half the cost and there is enormous capacity for further expansion.

Wind, too, offers significant, untapped potential and could, in theory, generate three times more power than fast neutron reactors at an increasingly low cost. Further savings are expected thanks to recent breakthroughs in the field of maglev (frictionless) technology, which allows turbines to be placed in areas where average wind speeds are low, extends the operational shelf-life of hardware and reduces the unit cost of power to consumers. (See table 1.) According to researchers at Guangzhou Zhongke Hengyuan Energy Science & Technology Co., Ltd, an energy company in southern China, maglev wind power generators also produce about 20% more power than traditional turbines.

Table 1: Projected cost of wind power (1981-2020)

X-axis: Year
Y-axis Cost / Euro cents / kWh

Greatest potential, however, lies in China’s vast endowment of deserts and plentiful sunshine in its northern regions, which could (based on the capabilities of today’s technology), produce 16700 gigawatts (GW) of solar power. That’s enough to meet any future energy demand.

Some serious suggestions

To achieve this, however, China needs to: develop hydroelectric power, with the aim of fully utilizing the 400 GW of commercially viable sources over the next 10 to 15 years; commercialise wind power, reducing costs to a level competitive with thermal power within 5 years and develop photovoltaic and solar concentrator technology, reducing costs to a level competitive with thermal power by 2015-2020.

In the longer term, serious consideration should also be given to a new vision for China’s desert regions, which could (with the right technology and infrastructure in place) conceivably house solar plants capable of producing 5,000 GW of power spread across an area of desert the size of the UK.

Table 2: Three-stage development of the nuclear and renewable industries – comparable output, cost, labour and technological requirements

Professor He is a senior researcher at the Institute of Theoretical Physics and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASS).

Homepage photo by Tam Tam

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匿名 | Anonymous



good article

Zuoxiu He's ideas usually invite controversial comments, but I think this is a rational, objective and scientific piece.
It is truly worthy of a member of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

As regards energy issues in China, though it is the No. 1 task to exploit new energy resources, it turns to be more important, at least at this moment, to save energy.

Energy waste is very serious in China.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






We should have dialogue on the basis of the real situation

I agree with the conclusion of Zuoxiu He in this article. However, on the question of nuclear power, I think it is somewhat misleading. I too would not support the large-scale development of nuclear power. China's total amount of installed capacity for electric power equipment in December 2005 topped 500 billion watts, and is estimated in 2020 to exceed 1 trillion watts. Zuoxiu He estimates that it may supply 1.5 trillion watts of nuclear power work in 40 years, that is 3 times the current amount of installed capacity, 1.5 times the amount of installed capacity in 2020, and he does not consider that in the meantime there could appear technological breakthroughs or an increase in efficiency rates. This is entirely different from China's current pattern of emphasizing fossil fuels. China's energy sources in the middle and long term development plan will have a total installed nuclear power capacity of 40 billion watts, comprising 4% of total installed capacity. If they all make use of fast neutron reactor power station technology, then these natural resources might last 1500 years! Nor is this only with domestic harvesting of uranium resources, as China lately has already signed an agreement with Australia to import uranium. Even if China,like
France, wish to use nuclear power to replace all of its electricity-generating technology. Considering the large amount of hydropower and fossil fuel powered facilities, this is far from being possible to achieve in the short term. Therefore to say that power from nuclear resources will be enough in the long term cannot hold. In regard to Professor He's comments about safety and cost issues with nuclear power, I entirely agree. I do not support the large scale development of nuclear power, but when discussing the shortcomings of different technologies, one cannot depart too much from reality or else the entire argument will lose its persuasive power. Renewable resources should be a direction of major development in China's future, but they at the same time face their own difficulties. Major hydropower has the problem of its influence on the environment and ecological system, wind power has the problem of being unstable, and China's technology is still backward in an international context. Morevoer, for solar power the cost of construction is still very high, not something that a developing country can use on a large scale. Nuclear power, although it also has many drawbacks, like renewable resources, correspondingly has a place in China's future natural resource supply, esepecially in replacing petroleum fuel, and the issue of lowering environmental pollution and controlling CO2 discharges. We should not draw conclusions too early to abandon a certain technology. At the same time, I agree with the comment above, resource conservation is another direction that China should take seriously. I don't really agree with Professor He's views on this point.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


这是我第一次在中外对话上发表留言,对于这个网站的存在,我十分兴奋。向你们大家问好!在英国,我们好像十分浪费能源——通过近来的调查,在家庭能源方面,我们是最浪费的欧洲国家之一。人们总是抱怨燃料费在上涨,与此同时,他们却总是开着各种机器,而不把自己的房子适度地绝缘。令人吃惊的是,商业和公共机构一样地糟糕,使用没有效率的设备浪费了几百万英镑。这儿有个难题:如果能源效率对我们所有人都有明显的益处,为什么我们不能更明智地使用能源呢?是什么阻碍了我们改变我们的使用方式呢?在英国,许多我与之交谈过的人对行为心理都很有兴趣,这种设想或信念会使我们采取不合理的行为。在中国有很多关于能源使用方面和环境友好行为的讨论吗?Penny Walker

When energy efficiency is such an obvious benefit to all, what stops it happening?

This is my first post on China Dialogue, and I'm very excited and pleased that this website exists. Greetings to you all.

Here in the UK, it seems that we use energy very wastefully - according to recent surveys, we are amongst the most wasteful Europeans when it comes to energy in our homes. People complain when their fuel bills rise, and yet at the same time they leave appliances switched on, don't insultate their houses properly and so on. Surprisingly, businesses and public bodies are as bad - wasting millions of pounds by using inefficient practices and equipment.

There is a conundrum here: if energy efficiency is such an obvious benefit to us all, why don't we use energy more wisely? What's stopping us changing our ways. Many people in the UK who I talk to are interested in the psychology of behaviour - the assumptions and beliefs that help us act irrationally. Is there much debate about this aspect of energy use and environmentally-friendly behaviours in China?

Penny Walker