Opinion: Will renewable energy power China's future?
Guest commentary by Lin Boqiang
Is renewable energy the power source of the future? The answer is yes. However, what is uncertain is how long it will take to replace fossil fuels, which will depend on multiple factors. 
China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) will have a big impact on the country's energy sector. Both the government and energy firms are required to better understand China's energy needs and the energy sector as part of the overall efforts to reform the economy.
Over the years, China has been pushing ahead with urbanization and industrialization. Heavy industry in a variety of sectors linked to infrastructure construction such as steel, cement and machinery, consumed more than 60 percent of the total energy used by the economy in 2016, while contributing just 24.5 percent of the country's GDP. As China continues its economic transition and the country's urbanization and industrialization slows down, its infrastructure construction spree could gradually taper off. As a consequence, the downturn for heavy industry is expected to reduce energy needs, without a big impact on GDP growth.
 In 2016, fossil fuels including coal, petroleum and natural gas accounted for about 62 percent, 18.3 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively, of the country's entire energy consumption. Non-fossil energy resources accounted for about 13.3 percent, including wind power (1.87 percent) and solar power (0.48 percent). 
Solar energy panels  /VCG Photo

Solar energy panels  /VCG Photo

It is estimated that the share of petroleum and hydropower in the overall energy consumption landscape will remain roughly unchanged during the 13th Five-Year Plan period. That said, the energy sector will be expected to rebalance between coal, and clean energy resources such as natural gas, nuclear power, wind power and solar power, which add up to roughly 10 percent of the total energy consumption. To be clear, the share of coal in the country's energy sector will fall, while that of clean energy is on course to climb along with the government's efforts to rein in pollution and push for the use of low-carbon and clean fuels.
China's use of non-fossils in regard to total energy consumption should rise by two percentage points to 15 percent by 2020, according to the Five-Year Plan. Additionally, natural gas is likely to contribute three percent more, while coal use may drop three percent during the five years.
Successful restructuring of the country's energy sector depends on government support for clean energy as well as demand. The ratio of coal consumption in the total energy consumption fell to 64 percent in 2015 from the previous year's 65.6 percent. A repeat of negative demand will make replacing coal with clean fuels easier. 
Coal worker with handful of coal /VCG Photo

Coal worker with handful of coal /VCG Photo

Clean fuel consumption currently accounts for about 10 percent of the country's entire energy consumption. If energy demand remains unchanged, a 10 percent rise in clean energy consumption will be able to replace one percent of coal consumption. If the total energy consumption growth comes in at one percent, consumption of clean energy resources will need to grow by 20 percent for one percent of coal consumption to be replaced. And if the total energy consumption growth climbs by two percent, coal consumption in absolute value will need to be increased. China’s energy demand reportedly increased by 3.5 percent in 2017. As a result, after three years of continuous decline, coal consumption in 2017 increased by 2.3 percent.
 Although the anticipated slow growth of energy demand in the new Five-Year Plan period will be beneficial for the replacement of coal with clean energy, it is still too optimistic to anticipate that the proportion of coal consumption in the total energy mix will drop by one percentage point every year. Currently, the proportion of clean energy is still too small, and cannot be an aggressive substitute for coal if the energy demand grows at a rate higher than two percent.
In conclusion, overall energy demand growth will directly affect China's level of coal consumption. Therefore, it can't be denied that coal will continue to be the primary energy resource for the Chinese economy for a considerable period of time, which renders it equally important for the country to try to use coal in a cleaner and more efficient way.
 (Lin Boqiang is the dean of the China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.)