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China permitted more coal power plants last year than any time in the last 7 years

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

China permitted more coal power plants last year than any time in the last seven years. It's the equivalent of about two new coal plants per week. That's according to a new report out. To find out more, we turn to reporter Julia Simon from NPR's climate desk. Hi, Julia.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So this is a massive increase in new coal plant approvals in China. What's driving it?

SIMON: Yeah. The researchers found this really accelerated in the second half of last year. Last summer, there were these big heat waves in China. And there's an ongoing drought in China. The Yangtze River dried up in places. So you had millions of people running their A/Cs in the heat and not enough hydropower. China's provincial governments worried about blackouts and quickly broke ground on new coal plants.

FADEL: So they need more electricity. Now, China leads the world in building new renewables. So why are they turning to coal-fired power plants for this?

SIMON: Well, they're doing both. They're building more solar and wind than any other country and building new coal plants. Some of these provinces say that they'll only run the new coal plants as backup for renewables. It's too early to know how much they'll run. Report co-author Aiqun Yu of Global Energy Monitor says a lot of why China turned to coal last year comes from the country's coal lobby.

AIQUN YU: For a long time, the industry tried to just spread the words that coal is the most reliable energy type. So when the energy crisis happened, the country just seeks solutions from coal by default - immediate reaction, just go to coal.

SIMON: And, Leila, that's despite the fact that coal just isn't that economical anymore, especially compared to renewables. And many of these new coal plants might end up losing money.

FADEL: Now, China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. So what do new coal plants there mean for reaching climate goals?

SIMON: It's still unclear. China has committed to having its emissions peak before 2030. What they didn't say is how high that peak would get. The higher the peak, the harder it is to get off fossil fuels. Globally, coal use is expected to peak soon. It's just no longer economical again. And it's harder to get financing for new coal plants. China really is seeming like the exception as it builds all these plants.

FADEL: So are there ways to turn more to renewables than coal for China?

SIMON: Yeah. So one big solution here involves the Chinese grid. In the U.S., we have these bottlenecks and delays for getting renewables onto the grid, problem with transmission between regions. Those are some of the same issues they're having in China. So researchers say working on technical and political grid issues can help China get more renewables and storage online.

FADEL: NPR's climate solutions reporter Julia Simon, thanks so much.

SIMON: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF YARNI AND NAU LEONE'S "LA MELODIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering race and identity. Starting in February 2022, she will be one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First.
Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.