HCP Q&A with Researchers: The Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment, based at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is initiating a new Q&A series with our research contributors. This is the sixth.
Harvard-China Project Undergraduate Researcher Q&A: Raymond Song
"Provincial governments’ position on coal-fired power plants"
Raymond Song is a senior Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator at Harvard University. Raymond, who is based in Beijing, China, is working with his advisors Professor Mike McElroy and Research Associate Shaojie Song on his senior thesis. Learn more about his research, in his own words:
Harvard-China Project: We understand your current senior thesis research explores the juxtaposition of renewable energy projects and China’s provincial government’s interest in constructing coal-fired power plants. Can you give us a brief synopsis of your research, and what you are investigating?
Raymond Song: My senior thesis research aims to shed light on the fundamental drivers and tradeoffs behind China’s ambitious climate pledges and its relevant energy policies. I hope the research will better explain the profound complexities surrounding China’s somewhat conflicting attitude towards its climate and energy future. In September, China surprised the entire world with a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 during the UN General Assembly. Yet, China’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement represent only an incremental step towards achieving this bold goal. On the one hand, China will raise its combined solar and wind installed power capacity to more than 1200 GW in 2030, compared with less than 500 GW by the end of this year; on the other hand, China’s appetite for coal-fired power plants has only seemed to grow as economic recovery from Covid-19 has required a push from the industrial sector. As China charts a net-zero pathway for the future, I want to understand how these challenges will influence its low-carbon transition.
The policy decisions of both scaling up renewables (solar and wind) and limiting coal-fired power plants are carried out through a top-down approach in China. However, the incentives of provincial governments are not always aligned with the target-setting of the central government. Even though China has developed the largest renewable power industry in the world, the sector’s development has been hampered by curtailment—in which more renewable power is available than the power system can accommodate, and is purposely wasted—for the past few years. The lack of market mechanisms, fragmented electricity regulation, as well as inefficient grid connections together contribute to the curtailment issue. Even though the situation has been gradually improving in recent years, renewable energy growth is still heavily dependent on favorable government policies like subsidies and feed-in tariffs. Whether the industry can continue its recent astonishing growth over the next 10 years, even when facing declining government investments, remains a question.
At the same time, the expected shift in China’s attitude towards coal-fired power plants has not arrived. Experts have been advocating for a cap on China’s coal capacity during the 14th Five-Year Plan period, to be announced in early 2021. However, the dire economic consequences of the pandemic have strengthened the prospects of coal in China. With the industrial sector going full steam ahead, a V-shape economic recovery renewed China’s appetite for coal. There were more coal projects in the pipeline during the first five months of 2020 than all of 2019. When regional governments put coal power plants at the center of their economic growth, the ambitious climate target will be under tremendous pressure. The decision seems more illogical when taking into consideration the fact that most of the existing power plants are running at an average capacity factor well below 50%. And more than half of these power plants are already running at a loss. Every new coal power plant developed in 2020 is at risk of becoming a stranded asset for decades to come. Similarly, deeply entrenched coal interests also drive China’s foreign investments in many Belt and Road countries, potentially locking-in their carbon emissions for decades to come. However, the tremendous inertia of China’s enormous energy system makes it difficult to change course in a short time. Thus, I hope my research could shed light on the delicate balance needed for smart design of both short-term and long-term climate and energy policies.
Harvard-China Project: You are currently based in Beijing. What are the challenges and opportunities of researching and engaging remotely?
Raymond Song: It felt a bit odd in the beginning to conduct research entirely on a remote basis. I absolutely miss the cozy late afternoon sunlight when I used to arrive at Professor McElroy’s office every week. And our conversations about China’s energy future would then unfold in so many unexpected ways. Now all the conversations can only take place through those narrow windows on Zoom. The 12-hour time difference between Boston and Beijing makes it challenging to find an ideal meeting time. Thanks to the unwavering support from Professor McElroy and Research Associate Dr. Shaojie Song, we have always made it work, week after week. It took me some time to adjust to the new lifestyle when our research meeting became the last thing I would do before going to bed every Tuesday. I would fall asleep with ease if I successfully addressed all the insightful questions posed by Professor McElroy and Dr. Song.
Even though Harvard’s libraries already feel like a distant dream, all the literature I need for my research are readily available online. Remote research becomes a rare opportunity to hone my research skills as I wander through the vast world of relevant research related to China’s climate and energy issues. I very much enjoy the genuine happiness when we happen to locate the same article as we track China’s recent developments in this area. Another benefit of being in Beijing is an unexpected opportunity to meet many experts from the relevant field in person. Professor McElroy and Dr. Song both offered invaluable help by connecting me to research partners of the Harvard-China Project. I gained substantial insights into this topic as I directed my questions to all these experts over the summer.
Harvard-China Project: Prof. McElroy and Dr. Song serve as your thesis advisors. Can you remark on their guidance and mentorship?
Raymond Song: I often find it hard to put into words how much gratitude I feel towards Professor McElroy and Dr. Song. Their support and encouragement gave me so much momentum to always strive for the best in doing this research, despite the challenging time of Covid-19. I first met Professor McElroy during the summer of 2017, a little less than two weeks before I started my journey at Harvard. It was a panel discussion on China’s environment hosted in Beijing by the Harvard Global Institute. During my freshman year, I had a conversation with Professor McElroy in his office. It’s hard for me to remember what exactly we discussed during that afternoon, as I did not understand much about this topic back then. But I still remember he gave me a few papers and told me to come again after digesting these readings.
After several workshops on campus, our paths finally crossed again when I joined the junior tutorial given by him and Dr. Song. Even though I already had some knowledge of the topic, the seminar was an eye-opening experience every single week, as Professor McElroy and Dr. Song always asked the most critical question relevant to the issues. During our research meetings, I sometimes would find it difficult to provide a convincing answer to their questions. These questions would then offer direction and momentum for my further research. This recurring process motivated me to reach the core of the issue I was investigating. At the same time, Professor McElroy and Dr. Song could always link my ideas with ongoing or previous research, thus expanding the landscape of my understanding of complex issues.
Harvard-China Project: What is the biggest lesson you have been learning from your senior thesis research project, both personally and professionally? What are your future career aspirations?
Raymond Song: Being a small part of the Harvard-China Project has been one of my most fulfilling experiences at Harvard. It offers me a rare glimpse into the fascinating world of academic research. As a college student, I can only contribute to the academic literature of this field to a limited extent. Yet Professor McElroy always encourages me to ponder the big picture while finding my niche in this field. Through his guidance, I have begun to grasp the essence of how to ask the most critical questions for my research. Sometimes it feels like a never-ending quest to locate new pieces for my “climate” puzzle. China’s climate and energy issues have always been at the heart of my passion for the environment. The opportunity to contribute to this research project that spans over three decades is a dream come true. Even though the issues at hand are so much greater than any of us, I can feel a sense of fulfillment as I add my small yet integral contribution to the field I care about the most.
I am still in the process of discovering my niche in the climate community. My concentration at Harvard, Environmental Science and Public Policy, fits perfectly with my aspirations. My activities outside of school have been related to climate advocacy in the past five years. After graduation, I wish to contribute to the research and policymaking process to help countries better position themselves in their transitions towards net-zero emissions. I hope my research on China’s climate and energy policy, as well as my past exposure to climate negotiations, will position me with a unique perspective to contribute to the global climate community. I will welcome every opportunity where my work can have a substantive impact on the fight against climate change.
Missed our other Researcher Q&As? Explore the work of some of our other Harvard-China Project researchers.