Greening China’s Grid

“China’s Great Green Grid”
Laurence Brahm

PacNet 71A
Center for Strategic and International Studies

November 14, 2012

I have been a longtime follower of Beijing-based attorney and author (and now, apparently, political economist) Laurence Brahm. Over the years, the longtime China hand has been a source of some thoughtful thinking on how to approach the challenges of China. He’s also invested in a couple of decent restaurants in the capital.

True to form, in a recent paper for the Pacific Forum CSIS, Brahm calls for China to dump coal for renewable energy. Dismissing the issues with wind and solar as “merely simple or technological issues that can be addressed through finance and investment,” Brahm calls on China’s leaders to shove the politically powerful coal interests aside and embrace (and finance) a wholesale shift to renewables.

Admirable goals, indeed. Unfortunately, the problems with the proposals as laid out in his paper are substantial. Brahm offers scant evidence that the political will exists in Beijing (or, more important, in the provinces) to sideline powerful coal interests, nor does he hint at what might incite such a will. Are the technical challenges constraining solar and wind really just a matter of money, or are there brutal problems of basic science, politics, and weather that will not easily yield even to the biggest of all checkbooks? What does that massive SOE, China Grid, think about all of this?

And the really big elephant in the room: can conservation, solar, and wind ever satisfy China’s demand, and what would it take in terms of changes in lifestyle and expectations for that to happen?

Admittedly, it is a little unfair to ask a political economist, even one with the credentials of Mr. Brahm, to address all of these issues in under a thousand words. Yet somehow I feel the author would have been better off listing the barriers to a green grid and a pathway around or through them rather than suggesting that money and a good five-year plan was the answer.

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