China and the smart grid: Missing pieces?


By Ian H. Rowlands


China is active in smart grids.  A variety of reports, comparing cross-national levels of investment, highlight this.  The country continues to pursue - successfully - its three-stage smart grid plan:


·         Stage I:  Planning and Pilot Stage (2009-2010)

·         Stage II: Construction Stage (2011-2015)

·         Stage III: Improvement Stage (2016-2020)


What aggregate numbers and high-level strategies do not reveal, however, is ‘where’ China’s particular smart grid priorities are located.  Different countries direct resources to different parts of the electricity system when they trumpet their own smart grid plans. A recent report by the Global Smart Grid Federation, for instance, compares approaches taken across eight different jurisdictions (though not China’s).  What is valuable, therefore, is a deeper consideration of China’s activities and ambitions, to illuminate where the country’s present ‘smart grid emphasis’ is, and where the future ‘smart grid focus’ will necessarily need to be.

What is left to do

China, like other countries, has thus privileged some parts of the electricity system in its smart grid strategy.  Moreover, given China’s resources and requirements - and given that it needs to expand, rather than to replace, its electricity system infrastructure - it is entirely understandable that China’s ‘smart grid’ resources have been directed to what is in effect ‘grid modernisation’ activities.


That means, however, that the work surrounding much of the ‘smart’ in ‘smart grid’ - that is, enabling the end-user through educational campaigns, technological deployment and institutional reform - has yet to be done.  Activity has, of course, commenced - some equipment has been developed and a few alternative tariffs have been deployed - but in a country where activity has to be ‘big’ in order to make a splash, this part of the smart grid agenda has, compared to transmission and storage, received relatively short shrift.


But debate between different visions of ‘smart grid’ in China is emerging.  It is virtually inevitable that a larger share of the country’s considerable resources will be directed to the end-user part of the smart grid system.  When that occurs, the global debate will undoubtedly shift accordingly.



Ian H. Rowlands is a Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo and Associate Director (Global Initiatives) of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy.  He has research interests in smart grid policy issues, consumer engagement opportunities and sustainable energy strategies.  He recently traveled to China as part of a Canadian Smart Grid Mission.  The author is grateful to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada’s Going Global Innovation program, the University of Waterloo’s International Research Partnerships program and the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy for supporting his trip.  Dr. Rowlands’s comments, however, are his own and should not be taken to represent any organization with which he is, or has been, associated.

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