After just four years of rapid development, China has the world's fourth largest wind power capacity: more than 12 gigawatts. However, the power of the breeze has become available so fast that the nation is struggling to make use of it.
For instance, the Jiuquan wind power base in Gansu Province—better known as "Three Gorges on Land"—is expected to supply 10 gigawatts of electricity when it reaches peak capacity in 2020. The wind farm, under construction in the Gansu Corridor—a narrow natural passage cutting through the Gobi Desert, Qilian Mountains and the Alashan Plateau—is just one of seven such giant complexes approved by the Chinese government.
In conjunction with other wind farms in China, Jiuquan might be able to meet the country's entire electricity demand by 2030, according to a September 11 study in Science. In fact, a $900-billion network of wind power plants built over the next 20 years and covering 500,000 square kilometers could provide nearly 25 petawatt-hours of electricity, seven times greater than the nation's current consumption, the researchers estimate.
China seems determined to arrive at that future, installing 6.25 gigawatts of turbines in 2008 alone and aiming for 100 gigawatts by 2020. "The wind has just taken off here," says Li Junfeng, deputy director of the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the government ministry charged with economic development. But "new wind projects only accounted for 7 percent of the entire new power-producing capacity added in China last year, compared to 42 percent in the U.S. and 43 percent in Europe." And wind power currently accounts for just 0.4 percent of China's generating capacity as a whole.
The larger, looming challenges currently facing China's wind farms include serious problems in connecting grids with larger networks, low-quality turbines, and wind farms that have been poorly sited. And another consequence of all these factors is that the current boom has yet to bring a profit to many wind farms.
Chinese wind power generation capacity, it is estimated, could reach 20 gigawatts by the end of 2009, according to the Chinese Wind Energy Association (CWEA), up from 12.15 gigawatts at the end of 2008. By comparison, globally, there were 120.6 gigawatts of operating wind power capacity at the end of 2008; Europe accounted for 66 gigawatts and the U.S. accounted for 25 gigawatts of the total, according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) in Brussels.
Chinese wind farms, however, "in general have difficulties in operation or even lose money," according to a government State Electricity Regulatory Commission report, which came out in July. For starters, so far, there is less wind power actually being generated than previously estimated by CWEA. The report notes that China's wind power generation capacity in 2008 should actually have been calculated as 8.94 instead of 12.15 gigawatts because some turbines were installed but not used, thanks to government mandates that set as a target the quantity of turbines rather than the amount of electricity they can generate.
In any case, China's wind farms currently struggle to connect with grids, creating power delivery problems. For instance, many of the farms are located in less developed northern and western provinces, such as Gansu, where patchy grids cannot manage the fluctuations in electricity production inherent in wind power.
Also, the power produced would have to be transmitted thousands of miles to high-energy demand areas on the densely populated coast in order to make a profit, a feat that is impossible today because of the lack of long-distance transmission technology or the funding to install it. One solution would be international assistance. "The U.S. also has to transmit wind power over long distances. The two countries can have technological cooperation," says engineer He Dexin, president of CWEA, who has been promoting wind energy since 1980.
The U.S. has infrastructure issues, too, such as aging and regionally constrained electrical grids, and Europe sometimes sees delays in connecting turbines to its grid. But getting intermittent wind turbines to work properly with the existing grid is "indeed a problem in China, much more so than in Europe and the U.S.," says Angelika Pullen, GWEC's communications director.
In the longer run, grid reconciliation is "not a real obstacle," NDRC's Li says. Half of China's grids were built in the past four years (70 percent in this century). They can be upgraded with better technologies. "We will improve our grids and build new ones to catch up with the wind power boom. We can work it out," he says.
One advantage in China—the cost of producing a turbine there is 70 percent of the international cost, Li says. China-made wind power devices accounted for 75 percent of the technology installed at Chinese wind farms in 2008, up from 57 percent in 2007, according to CWEA, thanks in part to central and local government mandates that require an ever-growing percentage of equipment at a wind farm in China be made domestically. For example, the NDRC stipulates in a 2005 regulation that wind farms cannot be built when the percentage is lower than 70.
But the quality of homegrown wind turbines is a serious problem. Many of the roughly 70 turbine manufacturing companies in China were set up in just the past four years. "Turbine producers need to test-use their products, especially their first ones, but some give no time to the step," He says. Some turbines cannot be used when they are installed, and some develop broken blades or cracked axes just a few weeks after they begin to operate.
And some wind farms have been built where there is not enough wind to ensure consistent generation of power, He adds. "The wind power sector is growing too fast. It needs to be stable for a period so that there can be a sustainable development in the long term," he says.
Despite these issues, government continues to chase the wind, setting the price for renewable power as high as 0.61 yuan per kilowatt-hour in July, about 10 percent higher than current prices for electricity from such installations. Wind farms also sell carbon credits at between 6 and 12 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. "They are major players in China's carbon trading," Li says.
And the links between alternative energy, economic development and climate change pertain no less in China than elsewhere in the world. Harvesting wind power may be key to reining in China's emissions of greenhouse gases. "Our study shows that it is financially feasible to have wind as an important alternative to coal as a source of energy for electricity generation in China," says Wang Yuxuan, associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who co-authored the September 11 Science paper. "It is possible for China to use wind power on a large scale and to eliminate much, if not all of the CO2 expected to be emitted by the power sector over the foreseeable future."