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A regional analysis of excess capacity in China’s power systems


China's economy has entered a “new normal,” characterized by slower economic growth and widespread overcapacity in its industrial sectors. Nevertheless, construction of power plants, especially coal-fired plants, continues at a rapid pace. Our analysis examines the extent of overcapacity in China's regional electricity grids. We show that already in 2014, the average reserve margin across China's regional grids was roughly 28%, almost twice as high as a standard planning reserve margin in the U.S. In addition, we find large variations in reserve margins across regional power grids in China, with the highest reserve margin (64%) in the Northeastern grid. This paper examines future reserve margins across regions in China under three growth scenarios. The results suggest that the majority of China will not need new baseload coal power (at least for reliability purposes) before 2020, and potentially not until 2025, under the low- and mid-growth scenarios. Under the high-growth scenario, China's central and eastern regions will need to import more power or built new capacity by 2020. As China's energy sector enters this new normal, our results highlight the growing importance of establishing mechanisms — planning processes and markets — that coordinate generation and transmission investments across grid regions, and that align the country's energy sector investments with its longer-term air quality and climate goals.

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