Building Renewable-Dominant Power in China

March 4, 2022


A modernized power grid fueled by renewable energy is at the heart of China’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, and a new study by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) outlines how China can overcome the current logistical challenges of decarbonizing its power system by reforming some key select operational practices.

Maintaining flexibility – the ability to respond to changes in energy supply and demand – is a key challenge in operating a renewable-dominant power system. Researchers ran simulations using a power dispatch model to examine the impact of different policy scenarios on grid flexibility. 

“Contrary to conventional belief, ‘flexibility retrofit’ of existing coal plants in China offer little marginal benefit in integrating renewables,” said the study’s lead co-author Jiang Lin, Nat Simons Presidential Chair in China Energy Policy at Berkeley Lab. “However, moving toward a regional model of operation and planning are key to transition to a renewable-dominant new power system in China.” 

Power grids are broken up geographically into so-called balancing areas, within which energy production and demand are stabilized; in China, balancing areas are largely divided by province. However, the research models projected that expanding these balancing areas into wider regions could improve grid reliability and flexibility and reduce curtailment by 5-7%. A national balancing strategy could potentially reduce overall power cost by about 16%. 

“We found that deep decarbonization of the Chinese power system is not only economically desirable but also operationally feasible,” said the study’s co-lead author, Nikit Abhyankar, Research Scientist at Berkeley Lab. “However, the key to achieving the lowest costs, while maintaining grid reliability, lies in co-optimizing the renewable energy and transmission investments and ensuring the economic system dispatch through market based reforms.”

Their model predicted the greatest impact on reduced curtailment and coal generation when larger balancing areas were combined with locally-based investment in renewable energy infrastructure across China. Despite being a popular first step in decarbonization, retrofitting coal power plants for more flexible operation offered only marginal improvements in grid flexibility. 

Additional Berkeley Lab authors in this research include Shengfei Yin.  




Dana D'Amico