How smart ideas are helping to accommodate China's renewable energy drive

Key Points
  • Renewable energy expansion presents a number of challenges. 
  • These include the curtailment of sources due to a lack of flexibility in the power system. 
VIDEO2:1002:10
Smart ideas are helping to accommodate China's renewable energy drive

A burgeoning economic, political and military power, China is also aiming to lay down a marker on the renewable energy sector.

Take offshore wind energy. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China added 1.6 gigawatts (GW) of capacity in 2018. To put things in perspective, the U.K., Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands combined added 2.7 GW in 2018.

And when it comes to solar photovoltaic capacity, China also leads the way, adding 44 GW in 2018. This may be lower than 2017, when 53 GW were added, but China still outstrips its nearest rivals by some way: the U.S. added roughly 10.5 GW in 2018, the IEA says.

Capacity refers to the maximum amount that installations can produce, not what they are currently generating.

While China's renewable energy expansion is large-scale, it also presents challenges, including the curtailment of sources such as wind power thanks to a lack of flexibility in the power system.

The development and integration of multi-energy systems and solutions could be one tool used to tackle this problem.

"The technical characteristics of different energy systems are quite different," Zhang Ning, from Tsinghua University's Department of Electrical Engineering, told CNBC's "Sustainable Energy."

He explained that while electricity was easy to transmit and use, it needed to be balanced in real-time, adding that batteries — which could be used for this — were expensive.

"However, gas and heating systems (are)… significantly cheaper than storing electricity," he added. "We can use it to indirectly store electricity so that we can accommodate more renewable energy."

Methods such as this could become increasingly important in the years ahead, especially when one considers how China is developing renewable energy.

"According to the research of our five year projects by 2030, more than 35% of the energy demand will be supplied by … renewables," Chongqing Kang, the dean of Tsinghua University's electrical engineering department, said. "The number will reach 60% to 70% by… 2050," he added.

On the topic of multi-energy systems and how they can be used to minimize the curtailment of renewable energy, Benson Ireri, from the World Resources Institute, highlighted some of the roles they could play.

"One of them, of course, is in terms of enhancing the flexibility of grid and power system supply, so that then the integration of renewables is much more easier and it's much more comfortable," he explained.