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China’s 12th Five-Year Plan Pushes Power Industry in New Directions
Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 PRINT EMAIL FAV PDF

The Five-Year Plan is the expression of the centralized planning goals for China’s economy. The 12th Five-Year Plan, approved by the Chinese Government on March 14, 2011, established many social and economic goals, including significant expansion of the country’s power generation industry in many new directions.

The Five-Year Plan is China’s most important government policy document. It describes a series of economic development initiatives, maps strategies for economic development, sets growth targets, and launches reforms. During the just-completed 11th Five-Year Plan period, rapid power industry growth met the needs of economic and social development, but the growth of the power industry was disorganized. As part of the 12th Five-Year Plan, the structure of power generation development will be optimized, including the proper balance of coal transportation and power transmission. In addition, the controversy over the direction of grid transmission and distribution must be reconciled. The Plan also puts forward specific requirements for energy conservation measures.

China’s major power companies have already begun formulating their development strategies to meet five specific requirements set out by the Plan: develop clean energy, optimize the production of coal-fired electricity, rationally allocate peaking power, develop distributed energy, and construct a strong and smart grid. The purpose of this article is to discuss those requirements and the development strategies for China’s power industry.

Goal 1: Develop Clean Energy
The 12th Five-Year Plan will change the power generation structure in which new and renewable energy resources figure prominently. According to the Plan, non–fossil fuel generation should account for 11.4% of total primary energy consumption by 2015, and renewable energy resources should be 20% by 2020. In order to reach emission reduction targets, the proportion of new and renewable energy in China’s overall energy mix will continually increase. Clean energy sources include hydro, biomass, wind, solar, and nuclear power.

In 2010, the total installed electricity production capacity in China was 968.34 GW (Table 1). To meet the Plan’s clean energy goals, hydro power will play the most important role in the development of new and renewable energy and contribute considerably to energy saving and emissions reductions in the next 10 years (Figure 1).

1. A great wall of China. The 22.5-GW Three Gorges Dam, which is under construction along the great Yangtze River in China’s Hubei Province, is the world’s largest power project, costing an estimated ¥180 billion ($28.4 billion) to build.

The contribution of nuclear power, although now about 10.8 GW, will increase greatly, as a percentage, in the future. Due to intermittency and instability issues, the installed capacity of wind power will be lower than hydro power and nuclear power by 2020. At the same time, the installed capacity of solar photovoltaics will not increase considerably before 2020 because of technology and economic concerns.

National Grid Energy Research Institute (NGERI) has completed a study of several scenarios of the coordinated development of clean energy and power systems during the 12th Five-Year Plan, particularly with regard to energy security and economy. The results of the study showed that China’s total installed capacity is expected to soar to 1,786 GW by 2020. The installed capacity of renewable energy will reach about 600 GW by 2020 (Table 1), according to the National Development and Reform Commission. Renewable energy will increase in overall percentage from 26.54% in 2010 to 34% in 2020.

It should be noted that the construction period for nuclear power and hydro power is very long. Thus, it is very critical for China to construct and place into operation a number of clean energy generation projects during the 12th Five-Year Plan period.

Goal 2: Optimize Production of Coal-Fired Electricity
The installed capacity of thermal power in China is 710 GW, 54% of which is in the electric load center of east China, and only 19% in the coal-rich regions in central and west China (Figure 2). The Plan requires accelerating the optimization of coal-fired power as essential for sustainable development of the power industry, or “local balance.” The largest challenge is that China’s coal-fired electricity distribution system lacks inter-provincial transmission capability. In addition, coal must be shipped by train from coal-rich regions to plants in the eastern areas, where air and acid rain pollution are severe. As expected, coal transport delays and downtime are frequent, threatening the security and stability of power systems as well as sustainable economic development.

Electricity demand will grow rapidly in China for a long time into the future. From the perspective of power demand distribution, consumption growth in the regions of Jin, Shan, Meng, and Ning in western China will be larger than in the eastern regions. From the perspective of the absolute level of electricity consumption, the proportion of consumption in supply-side regions may increase gradually, but regional distribution patterns will not fundamentally change. The absolute consumption gap between supply-side regions and demand-side regions will continue to increase (Figure 3). Therefore, accelerating the construction of coal-based generation is imperative in order to rationalize the location of coal-fired power and achieve greater overall economic and social benefits (Figure 4).

The technical feasibility of ultra-high-voltage (UHV) transmission has been verified with the successful operation of several UHV AC and DC demonstration projects. UHV can improve the economic effectiveness of transmission greatly. It can economically connect the energy base in the northwestern areas to the primary energy consumption areas in the east: The floor price of UHV transmission is 0.03 to 0.10 yuan/kWh (0.40 to 1.57 cents/kWh), lower than the cost of transporting coal the same distance. By balancing the amount of coal transported to plants in the northwestern areas with the amount of electricity moved to the east, China’s energy supply security is improved in the eastern and central regions. This approach also optimizes the use of energy, land, and environmental resources while promoting development of regional economies. According to the proposed program, new transmission will account for 20% of energy export in western areas.

Accelerating the regional optimization of coal-fired power requires mutual cooperation between supply-side and demand-side regions. Eastern areas lacking energy must receive coal, wind, and hydro power from western areas. In order to meet increased electricity demand and environmental protection requirements, it is important to control new coal power installations and focus development on nuclear, hydro, solar, and pumped storage plants. In addition, power development regions and demand-side regions should actively seek government support and establish strategic cooperation mechanisms to ensure an economic and reliable power supply.

Goal 3: Rationally Allocate Peaking Power
Coal-fired power is the foundation of China’s power generation structure. Northern plants account for a large portion of coal installation capacity and run-of-water hydropower plants, which makes regulating peak load difficult. With rapid development of wind power, especially given its intermittent nature, power systems must have peaking power. Due to peak-shaving difficulties, the output limits of wind power are very serious in low-load periods. Therefore, China needs to construct gas-fired power and pumped storage power stations to meet system peaking demand.

Gas-Fired Power. Compared with coal power, gas-fired power has advantages in reducing carbon emissions. Natural gas generators, good at peak shaving, can start fast and adjust flexibly. However, domestic natural gas resources are limited, and supply capacity is inadequate. The trends of China’s natural gas production and reserve-production ratio are shown in Figure 5.

We can see from Figure 5 that the reserve-production ratio of natural gas shows a downward trend, which means that China’s dependency on gas imports will increase even more. The 2009 China Energy Development Blue Book, released by the Academy of Social Sciences, estimates China’s natural gas consumption in 2010 was 120 billion cubic meters and will rise to 200 billion cubic meters in 2015 (Figure 6). China’s 2010 natural gas supply and demand gap was 20 to 30 billion cubic meters, with imports accounting for 20% of that amount.

Today, gas supply predictions from companies such as Petro China and Sinopec are optimistic. China has large growth potential for gas supply (the available reserve of natural gas has been increasing), which meets domestic demand during the 12th Five-Year Plan period and will meet the 13th Five-Year Plan period demand by importing more gas at a higher price.

The price of electricity from natural gas–fired plants is highly affected by market price. Taking gas supply, price, and other factors into account, China’s natural gas generation in the future should be moderate and located mainly in eastern load center regions to cover peaking power and develop cogeneration units. The installed capacity of gas-fired power is only 24 GW, and in-depth studies are still required to reach the comprehensive target of energy structure adjustment and power system peak shaving. Large-scale development of gas power is very difficult, as the natural gas supply is located far from the natural gas demand in China.

Pumped Storage. The pumped storage power station is the most economical and reliable energy storage technology that can also function as peak shaving, frequency modulation, accident spare, and black-start plant (Table 2). This type of plant can also respond swiftly with good load-following capability. Meanwhile, the development of pumped storage power can effectively reduce installation capacity and the amount of peaking supplied by coal power. The operating efficiency of coal is also improved when used with pumped storage. In order to add peak shaving to a grid with large-scale nuclear and wind power connected, it is critical to construct pumped storage power stations and accelerate the development of other energy storage technologies.


China’s opportunity to develop many pumped storage projects is vast: More than 130 GW of potential sites have been identified. Pumped storage power stations in eastern and central business areas account for about 50% of total site resources, with 15% each for North China Power Grid, Northeast Power Grid, and Southern Power Grid, according to the National Grid Energy Research Institute. However, pumped storage power stations on the Northwest Power Grid have fewer resources—less than 10% of the total. Planned and recommended sites for new pumped storage projects are shown in Table 3. The growth in pumped storage projects in China is illustrated in Figure 7.


China’s electricity load center is in the eastern and central regions, which have large peak-valley altitude differences and good resource sites for pumped storage. Therefore, future pumped-storage power stations will be mainly distributed in these regions.

Goal 4: Develop Distributed Energy Sources
Distributed energy sources are located on the demand side and have many advantages: They improve energy utilization efficiency with energy gradient utilization; reduce energy transmission pressure and transmission losses; reduce pollutant emissions when using renewable energy; and solve the problem of energy supply to remote or sparsely populated areas to achieve universal power service. However, distributed energy sources also have problems, such as large capacity per unit cost and high technical requirements. The current development of distributed energy mainly focuses on distributed renewable energy, natural gas cogeneration, and combined heat and power (CHP) systems with energy-saving benefits.

Distributed energy is an important development trend for future energy technology and supplements the central power plant system. Distributed energy has already been developed and applied in many other countries. For example, the U.S. has more than 6,000 distributed energy stations with installed capacity totaling 92 GW. The proportion of distributed energy in Denmark and the Netherlands is about 60% and 40%, respectively. The installed capacity and total amount of distributed energy is small in China today. Focusing on cogeneration or CHP systems, gas-fired distributed energy systems are mostly concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other big cities. Distributed renewable energy sources will be mainly concentrated in remote areas and will meet local electricity demand through wind power and solar power.

In order to promote the development of distributed energy, the National Energy Board has stated that most large-scale cities in the country will implement distributed energy systems by 2020. At a national energy conference in early 2010, the National Development and Reform Commission specified that the installed capacity of distributed energy should reach 50 GW by 2020.

However, there are still technical, economic, resource, and policy constraints for distributed energy, including: lack of clear and unified technical standards; lack of a reasonable price system and mechanisms, as current price systems cannot reflect energy scarcity and environmental value; dependence on imports of key equipment and lack of economic advantage; and equipment that is subject to constraints of gas supply and pipeline network coverage. Therefore, China should establish uniform technical standards and develop a rational energy price mechanism for distributed energy. In addition, the standard management of distributed energy should be enhanced and the development of distributed energy should be promoted by the approach “experiment first, promotion later.”

Goal 5: Construct a Strong and Smart Grid
The diverse locations of fuel supplies, plants, and population/electrical demand requires China to make full use of basic functions of the grid such as long distance, high capacity, and high energy efficiency. During the 12th Five-Year Plan period, it is important to accelerate the construction of inter-provincial transmission systems and promote the development of large bases for coal, hydropower, nuclear power, and other new energy resources. China can optimize the allocation of these energy resources by the approach of “common transmission channel, joint development and network to network delivery.”

A cross-regional, long-distance, and high-capacity transmission channel connecting China’s northwestern coal base and eastern load center regions will be built after the layout optimization of coal-fired power so as to achieve joint transport of coal and wind power. Studies showed that the development scale of wind power in Xin Jiang, Gan Su, Meng Xi, Meng Dong, and Ji Lin will be approximately 80 GW, 75% of which needs to be sent inter-provincially. Abundant solar energy resources in northwestern areas will be developed greatly by 2020, and this inter-provincial transmission infrastructure will allow China to expand the development scale of wind and solar power because it can be transmitted along with coal power, thereby avoiding economic problems because of isolated development and delivery.

Northwestern coal bases and southwestern hydropower bases have large potential to export power. According to the analysis of grid transmission ability, coal-fired power flow will increase 100% from 2015 to 2020. Southwestern hydropower will be the focus in the future, given the distribution and development of water resources. The outgoing capacity of hydropower from the Jin Sha River is 13.9 GW and 30.9 GW in 2015 and 2020, respectively, while from Si Chuan it is 17.2 GW and 22.2 GW. The massive pattern of “west to east” and “north to south” will be formed by then, and the ability of UHV and cross-transmission will be increased dramatically.

Power development should not only follow its own law of development but also continue to innovate and progress. On the supply side, the power system must not only constantly adapt to technological advances and large-scale development with clean and efficient development of traditional fossil fuel power generation but also meet the new development requirements for hydropower, wind power, solar power, and other renewable energy.

On the demand side, it is necessary to adapt technologies to meet the electricity needs of industrialization, urbanization, modernization, and information while meeting green development, energy saving, and low-carbon requirements. On the grid side, it is essential to provide safe, economical, clean, and efficient power products for a modern society. Based on an intelligent, modern, efficient information platform and service network, a smart grid can collect and respond to a diversified supply side and demand side, and satisfy the electricity needs of all.

Smart grids are developing actively abroad. They can provide a dynamic platform for a variety of distributed energy resources to connect flexibly and provide an intelligent control and management platform to improve energy efficiency and achieve demand side response. In addition, a smart grid can provide an innovative application platform for electric vehicles and thereby help resolve issues such as power supply security and sustainable development. Combining the characteristics of China’s energy resource with the sustainable development of its economy and society, State Grid Corp. proposed strategic objectives for a strong and smart grid.

A strong and smart grid requires an information and communication platform with the means of intelligent control. Incorporating generation, transmission, substations, and power distribution, a smart grid can allocate AC and DC rationally and cover all voltage levels to adapt to the development of inter-provincial transmission. Above all, smart grid is a modern grid that is strong and reliable, economically effective, and environmentally friendly. The UHV power grid plan by 2015 for China is shown in Figure 8. In contrast with smart grid developments abroad that stress demand side management, power transmission is also important for China.

8. UHV power grid plan by 2015. Source: State Council, The 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development
During the period of the 12th Five-Year Plan, the power industry should focus construction on the transmission grid backbone, which connects major energy-producing regions to main load centers. Besides, the optimal allocation of energy resources should be achieved to adapt to the construction of an electricity market platform while reducing the proportion of fossil energy consumption.

In addition, it is needed to strengthen the distribution network construction to improve power supply reliability and meet the needs of distributed energy development. It is estimated that a strong and smart grid, which is centered on an UHV synchronous network and with the characteristic of high security and reliability, will be built by 2020. It can also achieve large-scale energy resource allocation optimization with high efficiency (Figure 9).

9. Modern transmission projects. China, which in 2008 had already completed one 1,000-kV UHV AC circuit, in July put into operation the 2,000-kilometer, 800-kV Xiangjiaba-Shanghai link. Two other 800-kV DC circuits recently completed construction. The Longquan high-voltage DC converter station shown here is similar to those used at China’s massive hydropower transmission projects. Courtesy: ABB

As a new strategy for economic growth and emerging industries, a smart grid will bring great business opportunities for the power industry itself, for related upstream and downstream industries, and for the high-tech equipment manufacturing industry. However, opportunities and challenges exist side by side. In future developments, China should emphasis innovation on critical power system equipment and master key technologies, key components, and raw materials production with intellectual property rights through independent innovation. Otherwise, the future implementation of a smart grid will result in higher risk and poor economic effectiveness. Therefore, the independent innovation of the power industry will play a very important role in the future development of the energy industry in China.

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