China 2017 review: world’s second-biggest economy continues to drive global trends in energy investment

Energy industries Energy resources Renewable energy Foreign investment Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

China continued to be a global leader of investment in clean energy projects in 2017, defying an overall slowdown in Chinese overseas investment as the country further positioned itself to dominate in new energy technologies such as batteries and electric vehicles.

This report documents this trend and follows an IEEFA report published in January of last year —“China’s Global Renewable Energy Expansion”—that highlighted how, in addition to being the world’s largest investor in domestic renewable energy, China was taking the global lead.

A key development since our previous report was the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, a move that led to China’s quick reaffirmation of its emissions-reduction pledge that allows it to further project itself globally as a responsible major power while addressing its domestic air pollution concerns and building world-leading capacity in new energy markets.

Domestically, China began reorganizing its large state-owned power generators in 2017, a shift seen as an effort to move Chinese power companies away from reliance on coal and to restructure incentives for the largest coal and power companies. August 2017 saw China’s top coal mining company being merged with one of the nation’s “Big Five” power utilities. The combination of China Guodian Corp. and Shenhua Group Corp., now renamed China Energy Investment Corp., created the world’s largest power generator by installed capacity at about 225 gigawatts (GW). The deal also created a company no longer so reliant on coal since Guodian brought significant clean energy assets with it. It also ensures that Shenhua’s growth trajectory will no longer depend on the single-minded pursuit of more coal at the highest possible price—a strategic posture which has burdened China’s power companies and limited their appetite for innovative new clean energy technologies.

2017 was a record-setting year for renewable installation in China while efforts to reduce renewable energy curtailment began to yield results. China is estimated to have installed at least 50 GW of solar-powered generation in 2017, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance now predicts a total of 54 GW—compared to the 34.5 GW it forecast in 2016. Going forward, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China will continue to lead the world in renewable energy development.

Internationally, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has continued to drive Chinese energy investments overseas. The initiative already has driven US$8 billion of solar equipment exports from China and helped China become the number one exporter of environmental goods and services, overtaking the U.S. and Germany.

The Belt and Road Initiative is technology-agnostic. While international markets provide opportunities for Chinese builders of older technology capacity such as coal and hydropower, Chinese energy investment overseas will follow the global trend toward increased renewable energy capacity. IEA figures show that renewable energy capacity grew by 165 GW in 2016 compared to 55 GW for coal-fired capacity. Given that the IEA sees renewables contributing 60% of global additions to electricity generation capacity over the next five years, it makes sense for China to continue to build on its position as the global leader in renewable energy by looking for opportunities to develop international standard EPC and operating credentials.

The Belt and Road Initiative has defied Chinese curbs on domestic companies making overseas acquisitions. For the first three quarters of 2017, outbound M&A deals by Chinese firms slumped by 35% to US$96 billion due to tightened investment controls intended to restrict capital outflows. However, Chinese M&A activity in countries that are part of the BRI soared in 2017. Through the whole of 2016, Belt and Road-related investments totalled US$31 billion; this figure was surpassed in 2017 by the month of August, and the international accounting firm PwC sees Chinese overseas M&A activity picking up once again in 2018, driven in part by the Belt and Road Initiative.

The initiative was enshrined in the Communist Party constitution in 2017, creating more pressure than ever for it to succeed and confirming China’s desire to expand its role in the global economy.

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