China electric grid 2011
Workers on an electric line in Beijing. Reuters

The past decade of China's high-speed economic growth has seen power markets boom there. A potential economic slowdown won’t derail that trend, with Chinese electricity demand to double by 2026, according to researcher IHS Energy Insights (NYSE:IHS).

China added an electricity system the size of Japan’s -- the third largest in the world -- every four years, in its past decade of massive economic growth. Its total power load will be larger than the U.S. and Europe’s combined on an equivalent basis by 2035, according to the report released on Monday.

China has tripled its electricity infrastructure over the past decade. Even with a widely feared and discussed Chinese economic slowdown, electricity consumption should grow 4.1 percent a year for at least 20 more years.

Over the past decade, China consistently saw double-digit economic growth as it added 80 gigawatts of new power plants on average each year. But much of that has been fueled by coal, which China consumes in massive quantities.

In contrast, a North American energy shift has been driven by natural gas and shale resources, often tapped by the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where companies injecting water into the earth to release oil and gas.

U.S. energy production and exploration is expected to expand considerably in coming years. Barclays PLC (LON:BARC) analysts estimated on Monday that global oil and gas exploration budgets should hit a new record in 2014, up 6 percent to $723 billion, with much of that spending driven by the U.S.

China’s natural-gas market, too, will rival the U.S. in size by 2035, according to the IHS report. Now, natural gas only accounts for five percent of China’s primary energy, below the global average of 22 percent.

But natural-gas production on a commercial scale will only be a reality by 2020 at the earliest, the report found. That’s even as China’s shale-gas resources may be among the largest of any country in the world, according to expert’s expectations.

“Future Chinese gas consumption depends greatly on how much -- and at what cost -- shale materializes,” according to the IHS report. China should slowly become less dependent on natural gas imports, as its domestic supplies are tapped, the report said.

“Ambitious unconventional gas agendas aimed at improving energy security and pollution concerns should drive spending for the remainder of the decade,” wrote Barclays energy analysts, of the Chinese natural-gas market, in their Monday note.

The U.S. may become energy independent in coming years, or at least shore back its heavy reliance on energy from the Middle East.

Inadvertently, the IHS report also showcased the scale of the energy obstacles -- and opportunities -- facing China.

Many Chinese provinces are the size of whole European Union countries or U.S. states in population, economic size or electricity system. Guangxi province has the same installed power-generation capacity as the Netherlands, for instance, while coal consumption in the coastal Jiangsu province equals that of Canada’s.