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March 15, 2010

The U.S. in the World Race for Clean Electric Generating Capacity

March 15, 2010
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Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu

China has already made its choice.  China is spending about $9 billion a month on clean energy.  It is also investing $44 billion by 2012 and $88 billion by 2020 in Ultra High Voltage transmission lines.  These lines will allow China to transmit power from huge wind and solar farms far from its cities.  While every country’s transmission needs are different, this is a clear sign of China’s commitment to developing renewable energy.

The United States, meanwhile, has fallen behind.

U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu

In an attempt to generate support for implementing a cap on carbon dioxide, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and others paint a very dire picture of the U.S.-vs.-China race for clean energy, implying that China is quickly outstripping us in that race.[i] However, all the facts are not on the table. In both 2008 and 2009, the U.S. added more non-hydroelectric renewable capacity than it added traditional capacity (natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear).[ii] At the end of 2009, the U.S. ranked first in wind capacity in the world with China’s wind capacity about 30 percent less than the U.S. level. At the end of 2008 (the most recent data available), the U.S. ranked fourth in solar capacity, with only Germany, Spain, and Japan having a larger amount. Where China is outstripping us in domestic construction is in coal-fired, nuclear, and hydroelectric generating technologies. Because of U.S. legal and regulatory red tape, it is much harder to build these energy technologies in the U.S. than in China.

What Does the Capacity Data Show for Wind and Solar Power?

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. ranks fourth in the world in solar capacity with 8,800 megawatts at the end of 2008.[iii] Germany, Spain, and Japan, in that order, had larger amounts of solar power at the end of 2008 than the U.S.[iv] China had just 0.3 megawatts of installed solar PV capacity at the end of 2009[v] or 0.003 percent of the solar capacity of the U.S.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the U.S. leads the world in wind generating capacity, with 35.2 gigawatts at the end of 2009; Germany is second with 25.8 gigawatts, and China is third with 25.1 gigawatts.[vi] In 2009, the U.S. installed almost 10 gigawatts of wind capacity, a record,[vii] and China installed 13 gigawatts.[viii]

Why is China Building Wind and Solar Capacity?

China builds wind and solar because ratepayers in other countries are paying them to do so. China has been taking advantage of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol to obtain funding for its solar and wind power.[ix] Under this program, administered by the United Nations, wealthy countries can contribute funds and get credit for “clean technology” built elsewhere as long as it is additional, that is, as long as that technology would not have been built otherwise. China is the world’s largest beneficiary of the program and has benefited to the point where 30 percent of its wind capacity is not operable because it is not connected to the grid.[x] However, in mid 2009, the U.N. started questioning whether the Chinese CDM program was in fact “additional,” because the U.N. found that China was lowering its subsidies to qualify for the program.[xi] That is, China was reducing its own government’s support in order to get international subsidies.

How Do the U.S. and China Electric Construction Programs Compare?

While China is building non-hydro renewable slightly faster than the United States, overall it is building new electrical generation much, much faster than the United States. The most comparable international database on electric generating capacity is found on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) website.[xii] Comparing the electric generating capacity data by technology type for the two countries, at the end of 2007 (the last year of comparable data), the Chinese had a total of 716 gigawatts of generating capacity, about 280 gigawatts less than the 995 gigawatts of capacity in the U.S.

The U.S. has been building generating capacity at a very slow rate, adding between 8 and 15 gigawatts a year since 2004. The Chinese in contrast, to fuel their bulging economy, have added between 75 and 106 gigawatts a year, from 2004 to 2007. Based on Secretary Chu’s comments, one might think that the additional capacity that China was adding was all non-hydroelectric renewable and nuclear capacity. However, that has not been the case. Between 2004 and 2007, the Chinese have added 226 gigawatts of fossil fuel generating capacity, 40 gigawatts of hydroelectric capacity, 2 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, and only 6 gigawatts of non-hydro renewable capacity.

non hydro renewable electricity china vs united states

electricity installed china vs united states

What are China’s Electric Construction Plans?

Both China’s generating sector and its industrial sector rely heavily on coal, with 79 percent of its electric generation being coal-fired.[xiii] According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), from 2004 through 2007, China has been building 30 to 70 gigawatts of coal-fired power a year, and has about 70 gigawatts more under construction. NETL sees China building over 185 gigawatts of coal-fired plants in the future.[xiv] (See figure below.)

coal plants china united states

According to Australia, China is planning to build 500 coal-fired plants over the next ten years.[xv] That means: every week or so, for the next decade, China will open another large coal-fired power plant.[xvi] Australia has just signed a $60 billion deal with China to build a coal mine in Queensland and a 311-mile rail way for transporting the coal to the coast for export to China’s power plants.[xvii]

While China has been slow in adding nuclear power plants, it currently has 20 nuclear reactors under construction and more starting construction this year.[xviii] Four AP 1000 reactors are under construction at 2 different sites: Haiyang and Sanmen.[xix] These are the same reactors that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has ruled need additional analysis, testing, or design modifications of the shield building to ensure compliance with NRC requirements before they can be constructed in the U.S.[xx] China expects to achieve a total nuclear capacity of 60 gigawatts by 2020, and 120 to 160 gigawatts by 2030,[xxi] surpassing the total nuclear capacity of the United States.

China has a goal to produce 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020.[xxii] To help meet this goal, China is planning to build the world’s largest wind farm in the northwest part of the country. The plan is for 5 gigawatts in 2010, expanding to 20 gigawatts in 2020, at a cost of $1 million per megawatt,[xxiii] or $1,000 per kilowatt, about half the cost of an onshore wind unit in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.[xxiv]

What about the U.S.?

The U.S. has made it difficult to build generating plants in this country, particularly coal-fired and nuclear power plants. According to NETL, only eight coal-fired plants totaling 3,218 megawatts became operational in the U.S. in 2009, the largest increase in coal-fired capacity additions in one year since 1991.[xxv] Prospects of cap-and-trade legislation, reviews and re-reviews by the Environmental Protection Agency, direct action protests, petition drives, renewable portfolio standards in many states, competition from wind power, and lawsuits have slowed the construction of new coal-fired plants.[xxvi] As of late February, activists had derailed 97 of the 151 new plants that were in the pipeline in May 2007. According to the Sierra Club, 126 coal plants have been stopped since 2001.  And, for the first time in more than 6 years, not one new coal plant broke ground in 2009. The graph above compares the coal-plant additions in the U.S. to that of China, showing only a handful of coal plants under construction in the U.S.  With new coal-fired plants extremely limited by the above, some are purporting that the current direction for activists may be to phase out the existing fleet of coal-fired power plants.[xxvii] Because the capital cost of most of our coal-fired plants has been paid, that fleet produces almost 50 percent of our electricity at very little cost. Average production costs for coal-fired generators in 2008 were only 2.75 cents per kilowatt hour, second to our nuclear plants at 1.87 cents per kilowatt hour.[xxviii]

No nuclear plant has started up in the U.S. since 1996,[xxix] and no construction permits have been issued since 1979.[xxx]NRC requirements, financing difficulties, and slow fulfillment of the nuclear provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 have slowed the construction of new nuclear power reactors. However, as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, President Obama announced last month that his administration is offering conditional commitments for $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power construction and operation. Two new 1,100 megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors are to be constructed at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Burke, Georgia, supplementing the two reactors already at the site. The two new nuclear generating units are expected to begin commercial operation in 2016 and 2017 at a cost of $14 billion. As part of the conditional loan guarantee deal, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must determine if the AP1000 fulfills the regulatory requirements for a construction and operating license.[xxxi] (These are the same units permitted, licensed, and being constructed in China right now.) But, as a recent Wall Street Journal energy conference noted, loan guarantees are “meaningless in the absence of regulatory certainty.” Further, Obama’s budget cutbacks for Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository, are yet another signal that President Obama may not “walk the talk.”[xxxii]

Natural gas and wind power are the technologies that seem best able to surmount the financial, regulatory, and legal hurdles of getting plants permitted and operational. In 2008, the U.S. added over 15,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity, of which 4,556 megawatts was natural gas-fired and 8,136 megawatts was wind power.[xxxiii] However, organized local opposition has halted even some renewable energy projects by using “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) issues, changing zoning laws, opposing permits, filing lawsuits, and bleeding projects of their financing.[xxxiv]

The Energy information Administration projects that the U.S. will need 200 gigawatts of additional generating capacity by 2035 to replace capacity that will be retired and to meet new electricity demand.[xxxv] Of that amount, EIA expects that 13 percent will be coal-fired, 53 percent natural gas-fired, 4 percent will be from nuclear power, and 29 percent from renewable power (23 percent is expected to be wind power), assuming that no changes would be made to current laws and regulations.[xxxvi]


China realizes that it needs affordable energy to fuel its economic growth, and is building all forms of generating technologies at breakneck speed. By contrast, the electric generating construction program in the United States has slowed tremendously, owing to regulatory, financial, and legal problems. Without reasonably priced energy, it will be difficult to achieve high levels of economic growth in the U.S., and industry will move offshore where energy is more affordable. Will Secretary Chu’s policies get us to affordable energy, or will the administration’s policies divert us from obtaining the energy that we need to fuel our economy?

[i] Climate Wire, Energy policy: U.S. clean tech outpaced by China—Chu, March 9, 2010,

[ii] Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, Renewables Global Status Report 2009 Update, May 13, 2009,


[iv] Ibid.

[v] Center for American Progress, Out of the Running, March 2010,

[vi] Global Wind Energy Council,, and Global Wind Energy Council, Global wind power boom continues amid economic woes, March 2, 2010,[tt_news]=247&tx_ttnews[backPid]=4&cHash=1196e940a0

[vii] American Wind Energy Association, U.S. Wind Energy breaks all records, January 26, 2010,

[viii] Global Wind Energy Council, Global wind power boom continues amid economic woes, March 2, 2010,[tt_news]=247&tx_ttnews[backPid]=4&cHash=1196e940a0

[ix] CNN, U.N. halts funds to China wind farms, December 1, 2010,

[x] The Wall Street Journal, “China’s Wind Farms Come with a Catch: Coal Plants”, September 28, 2009,

[xi] CNN, U.N. halts funds to China wind farms, December 1, 2010,


[xiii] Energy information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2009,

[xiv] National Energy Technology Laboratory, Tracking New Coal-fired Power Plants, January 8, 2010,


[xvi] The New York Times, “Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow”,

[xvii] Australia Signs Huge China Coal Deal,

[xviii] Nuclear Power in China”, World Nuclear Association, November 6, 2009,

[xix] Westinghouse News Releases, “Westinghouse and the Shaw Group Celebrate First Concrete Pour at Haiyang Nuclear Site in China”, September 29, 2009,

[xx] Westinghouse Statement Regarding NRC News Release on AP1000 Shield Building,

[xxi] Nuclear Power in China, World Nuclear Association, November 6, 2009,

[xxii] USA Today, “China Pushes Solar, Wind Power Development”,

[xxiii] The Wall Street Journal, “Wind Power: China’s Massive and Cheap Bet on Wind Farms”, July 6, 2009,

[xxiv] Energy information Administration, Assumptions to the Annual Energy Outlook 2009, Table 8.2, Electricity Market Module,

[xxv] National Energy Technology Laboratory, Tracking New Coal-fired Power Plants, January 8, 2010,

[xxvi] A messy but practical strategy for phasing out the U.S. coal fleet,



[xxix] “Nuclear Power: Outlook for new U.S. Reactors”, Congressional Research Service, March 9, 2007,

[xxx] Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2008, Table 9.1,

[xxxi] Environment News Service, Obama Backs First New U.S. Nuclear Plant with $8.3 Billion, February 16, 2010,

[xxxii] The Wall Street Journal, An Energy Head Fake, March 11,2010,

[xxxiii] Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Annual, Tables 1.1 and 1.1.A,

[xxxiv] For a repository of stalled and stopped energy projects, see U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Project No Project Energy-Back On Track”,

[xxxv] Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2010 Early Release, Table A9,

[xxxvi] Ibid.

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