Renewable energy development in China: policies, practices and performance

Jingyi Han

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Energy demand in China has risen rapidly, driven by its massive economic growth. Meanwhile, the energy system in China heavily depends on fossil fuels, which causes serious problems of climate change and air pollution. China started to develop renewable energy about 30 years ago, aiming to alleviate the pressure of energy shortage and fossil fuel related environmental problems. The central government has shown great determination to promote the utilization of renewable energy resources and it set ambitious targets to increase the proportion of renewable energy in the country’s total energy consumption to 10% by 2010 and 15% by 2020.
China has a large amount of renewable energy resources within its vast territory. Large potentials of producing bioenergy, solar energy, wind energy, hydro energy, geothermal and ocean energy have been identified in China. During the past three decades, the Chinese government made major efforts to develop these renewable energy resources. A series of policies have been formulated to promote renewable energy utilization. As the second largest investor on renewable energy in the world, China has invested considerable financial resources to renewable energy projects. As a result, the installed capacity of renewable energy in China has increased sharply, especially in the fields of wind power, solar thermal and hydro power. However, China lacks effective monitoring and evaluation systems to review the performance of renewable energy policies, programs and projects. It is not yet clear whether the objectives of China’s renewable energy development policy will be reached in an efficient and effective way.
Under such circumstances, this study evaluates the performance of renewable energy policies and practices in China. The following three research questions are given a central place: What is the performance of the implementation of renewable energy policies and practices in China up till now? What are the driving forces behind the successes/failures of renewable energy development in China? What reforms can be recommended for future renewable energy policies and programs in China?
In order to answer these questions, this study uses various ideas and concepts of policy evaluation theories as sources of inspiration and information to build an analytical model for evaluating the performance of renewable energy developments in China. Within this analytical model, the performance of renewable energy development is evaluated by criteria of economic performance, technological performance, and environmental and social impacts. The driving (f)actors behind the performance are subsequently analyzed using a triad-network model. Finally, recommendations for future development of renewable energy in China are formulated, based on these analyses.
This study takes primarily a qualitative research strategy, based on case study research. Three main cases form the central part of this study: one case of biogasification developments in Shandong Province, one case of onshore wind power developments in Inner Mongolia, and one case of solar water heater developments in Zhejiang Province. Data for each case study are collected through site observation, via in-depth interviews with key informants, via questionnaires and through secondary analysis of existing data, statistics and written sources. A structured approach – triangulation – is applied to combine the various data sources and data collection methods.
Results of the case study on biogasification prove that these projects do not bring developers and users economic benefit, due to the large-scale close down of biogas stations after a relatively short life time. The biogas stations also suffer from various technological problems such as tar jam, leakage of gas pipes and difficulties in treating wet feedstock. However, the establishment of biogasification projects improves the environmental quality of local area and the quality of life of local residents.
The analyses of wind power projects illustrate the poor economic performance of wind power projects due to the vicious competition for concession projects. Most of the wind farms are well designed and equipped with relatively new wind turbine technology, but many of them are used at low efficiency. The wind power projects reduce the consumption of fossil fuels for power generation and thus contribute to the reduction of air pollutant emission (among which greenhouse gasses). The construction of wind farms has marginal direct impacts on the life of local people and ecosystems. Nevertheless, these projects bring local areas some indirect benefits, such as improvements in the mobility infrastructure and accessibility and attractiveness to tourists (and thus economic income).
From the solar water heater case study it could be concluded that this technology brings both producers and end users major economic benefits. The use of solar water heater also reduces air pollutant emissions by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. While overall this relatively simple technology functions well, the expansion of solar water heater utilization encounters some technological challenges. It proves difficult to adapt the solar water heaters onto existing buildings. Water tanks and pipes installed outside of the buildings are not resistant to extreme temperatures, as they freeze during extremely cold winters. The development and implementation of solar water heater has comes together with a number of social problems, especially in relation to obstructions by city administrations and real estate management in some cities.
The analyses of the driving forces behind these three renewable energy developments show some remarkable differences. The biogasification projects in China are strongly influenced and pushed by policy networks and societal networks, while economic networks play a marginal role in their development and implementation. Wind power projects in China are strongly influenced and advanced by policy networks and economic networks, while the influence of social networks is marginal. And the solar water heater projects in China are strongly guided and implemented by economic networks and societal networks, whereas policy network institutions and actors play less prominent roles. These driving networks, and the absence other networks, partly explain the performance of each of the renewable energy projects in China.
These findings also result in a number of recommendations for further developing renewable energy in China. In order to strengthen the poorly developed or absent network drivers in each case, improvements should be made with respect to institutional reform and policy revision, the further creation of market dynamics, and technology improvement. Some of the concrete recommendations formulated in this study are:
• The management of and investment in renewable energy projects should be improved by involving private companies into project development.
• Feed-in tariffs should be introduced in wind power projects.
• It is necessary to open up renewable energy development planning and siting to public participation and create a better platform for the public to express their opinion.
• A semi-protected market should be established to promote renewable energy development. In this semi-protected market, the developers continue to receive governmental subsidies, while the renewable energy products are sold increasingly according to “real” market rules and conditions, and foreign investments play a more important role than present.
• Technology improvements should aim to solve the technological problems in the short term, to improve efficiency of renewable energy utilization in the medium term, and to diversify the renewable energy technologies in the long term.
Finally this study formulates implications for future research. Research is recommended especially with respect to public participation and acceptance of renewable energy development as that hardly takes place at the moment; with respect to evaluation modes of performance evaluation itself; and with respect to China’s post-Kyoto renewable energy development strategies.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
Award date8 Dec 2009
Place of Publication[S.l.
Print ISBNs9789085854890
Publication statusPublished - 8 Dec 2009


  • environmental policy
  • energy
  • renewable resources
  • solar energy
  • solar heating
  • wind power
  • bioenergy
  • economic evaluation
  • project appraisal
  • development
  • government policy
  • energy resources
  • energy consumption
  • china


Dive into the research topics of 'Renewable energy development in China: policies, practices and performance'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this