China could quadruple its share of modern renewable energy by 2030 with the right policies in place, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the China National Renewable Energy Centre.

Under a business-as-usual approach given current policies, IRENA estimates that modern renewables could make up 16 percent of the energy mix by 2030. China has a goal of 15 percent of energy from non-fossil sources by 2020. The assessment defines modern renewables as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and new biomass, but does not include traditional biomass sources, such as wood.

But the opportunity is far larger, according to IRENA, and could still provide a cost benefit given the health risks associated with China’s coal-heavy power industry.

According to IRENA's assessment, it is both technically and economically feasible for modern renewables to make up 16 percent of the energy mix by 2030.

To reach that point, there would need to be an investment of about $145 billion per year from now until 2030, but that investment would bring savings of between $55 billion and $228 billion annually in health benefits and reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

The study was done before the U.S. and China announced joint, non-binding targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which could bring IRENA’s roadmap, REmap 2030, closer to reality.

“REmap 2030 shows that China can achieve the energy revolution it’s aiming for -- and that it can do so affordably,” Dolf Gielen, director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Center, said in a statement. “It also gives China a higher goal to aspire to," he said, stating that an energy mix with 26 percent renewables is achievable by 2030.

The roadmap identifies an additional 246 gigawatts of wind and 169 gigawatts of solar on top of the reference case, for a total of 561 and 309 gigawatts, respectively. IRENA does not see geothermal playing a significant role, but it does see potential for more industrial combined-heat-and-power plants that use biomass as a fuel source. 

*TFEC (Total Final Energy Consumption)

Some of the proposed technologies will need to grow substantially: offshore wind will need to go from nearly nothing to 3 gigawatts per year, biomass will need to expand, and traditional biomass will need to be fully substituted. Another issue will be transmission, which could substantially drive up the cost of deploying renewables in certain regions.

IRENA acknowledges that “even with the potential of renewables estimated in this study, China’s coal use by 2030 will be very similar to its current levels.” Bloomberg New Energy Finance has estimated that China will start dismantling its coal capacity by 2030.

For renewables to truly thrive, however, China would need a carbon price of about $50 per ton to make distributed solar PV cost-competitive with coal, according to the study. A cost of $20 to $25 per ton would be needed in order for utility-scale wind and solar to be competitive.

“China’s energy use is expected to increase 60 percent by 2030,” Adnan Amin, director-general of IRENA, said in a statement.  “How China meets that need will determine whether or not the world can curb climate change.”