Energy Policy All the Way: The Rise of Renewables in China and India


By Johannes Urpelainen


China and India are the two most important countries for the planet’s future. China is responsible for almost 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions. India’s smaller share, 6%, masks a rapidly growing population and an expanding economy that remains heavily dependent on coal.


In both countries, the growth of renewable energy in power generation has inspired optimism.  In 2017, 37% of China’s power generation capacity was renewable. Meanwhile, India’s renewable power generation capacity reached 34%. Both numbers include hydroelectric power, but recent growth is dominated by wind and solar power.


In China and India, the story of renewable energy is one of energy policy. As Michaël Aklin and I show in our book Renewables (MIT Press, 2018), the rapid decrease in renewable power generation costs has led the Chinese and Indian governments to invest in renewable power generation capacity. These two giants have, in turn, contributed to further decreases in these costs.


The challenge lies with what comes next. If Chinese and Indian renewable energy policy were primarily motivated by climate change, or even air pollution, the two governments might be willing to accept the growing system integration costs – the costs of running a 24-hour economy on intermittent resources such as solar and wind.


But because the fundamental motivation for renewable energy is conventional energy policy – secure and affordable supply – the system integration costs are a major obstacle to rapid expansion. As renewable energy penetration increases, system integration costs increase and renewable energy begins to look less appealing.


The solution to this problem lies with a suite of solutions that includes battery storage, demand side management, and smart grid management. As technologists, regulators, and policymakers learn to manage ever larger loads of intermittent power, the cost of system integration will decrease, just like the cost of generation decreased already earlier.


In the end, China and India are doing energy policy – climate mitigation remains at best a narrative that is added on top of a more traditional outlook. Those of us trying to understand and remove barriers to sustainable energy transitions should never forget that. The problem remains one of energy policy, and no solution that fails to solve that problem is likely to succeed.



Johannes Urpelainen (@jurpelai) is the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment in the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP).


Photo credit: Wikipedia.