China’s Energy Dragon Looks Tamer to One Forecaster

Scientific American reports on a new study by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s (LBNL) China Energy Group of long-term forecasts for China’s energy use:

The LBNL forecast is the first such survey that attempts to come to grips not only with China’s energy and resource needs during the current era of rapid development, but also attempts to pinpoint when that era will end. “Most conventional forecasting techniques use a process that assumes the future is going to look like the past—they establish certain relationships between energy and economic activity, and project forward what will be energy uses in the future,” explains LBNL staff scientist and report co-author David Fridley. (He is referring specifically to energy forecasts by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and two scenarios prepared by the Energy Research Institute (ERI), a Beijing think tank affiliated with the Chinese government.) Yet the relationship between economic growth and energy demand is not just a straight line. “Nothing can grow exponentially forever.”

Current thinking says China’s energy demand will only go up and up throughout this century. The LBNL report, however, projects that after rising steeply for the next 15 years, China’s energy growth curve will bend and begin to plateau; demand will then peak by 2050 at between 4.5 billion and 5.5 billion tons coal equivalent (depending on the government’s success implementing various energy efficiency targets). That is considerably less than the amount if you simply extended other surveys forward. The report forecasts that energy use per person in China will rise to about 40 percent of what Americans consume.

The insights underlying the LBNL forecast are simple. First, the study simply extends further into the future than many forecasts. (The International Energy Agency’s most recent “World Energy Outlook” only looks to 2035 and shows no sign of China’s energy demand beginning to level off.) Second, their research takes account of what China Energy Group director Mark Levine calls “saturation points.” That is the point at which energy demand in a given sector levels off. In a country where still more than half the population is rural, many people have yet to purchase even basic appliances. “But once you have a refrigerator, you don’t need another,” he says. The concept is simple, but actually integrating it into forecasting requires looking at the dynamics of each sector, and gathering data that can be hard to come by in China. “What makes our model unusual is that we actually account for the specific number and size of refrigerators, televisions, air-conditioners, and more per household,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you can’t know there’s a saturation point.”

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