Renewable energy in inland China sometimes generates more electricity than nearby consumers can use, but then at other times produces too little. Just five years ago, three inland regions that create abundant solar and wind energy power — sparsely populated Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Gansu — were wasting up to two-fifths of that power.
To address this problem, China has built ultra-high-voltage transmission lines linking the country’s interior to hubs near the coast. But connectivity still has a ways to go. “New demand can more than be met by cleaner sources of energy” if transmission networks are expanded, Ms. Lewis said.
Beijing is also trying to use market forces to expand renewable energy. The Chinese government has ordered electric utilities to charge industrial and commercial customers up to five times as much when power is scarce, and generated mainly by coal, as when renewable energy is flooding into the grid.
Despite the aims of Beijing, provincial governments have other ideas.
“There’s a tug of war right now, ” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University who studies China’s climate policies. “The central government is trying to limit coal production, and the local governments are doing the opposite. They want to restart plants or build new ones to get their local economies moving again post-pandemic.”
Song Hewan, a bicycle mechanic who works and lives near the new gas-fired power plant being completed on the northern edge of Dongguan, said that he certainly did not miss the coal plant. “Clothes got dirty if you hung them outside, white cars got dirty after being parked here for a while,” he said.
After that experience, Mr. Song is unenthusiastic about power plants in general. But if no new power plant replaces the coal-burning plant that was torn down, he fears, then China’s four decades of rapid economic growth might end. “Without electricity,” he said, “life would return to the Seventies.”
Keith Bradsher reported from Dongguan, China, and Lisa Friedman reported from Washington. Li You contributed research.