Friday, 4 December 2009

China and wind farms

China is investing heavily in clean wind power to stem its reliance on dirty coal. But it's getting ahead of itself
Jane Macartney

Sprouting from the monotony of the Gobi desert in northern China are dozens of towering wind turbines. This, the world’s largest project of its kind, has been dubbed “Three Gorges on Land” — and it will produce more power than the mighty Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
Through a haze of sand, many of the turbines can be seen spinning, though others barely turn. That contrast is symptomatic of China’s rush to introduce clean energy and rely less on coal, which both fuelled its economic boom and made it the dirtiest country in the world.
So swiftly have communist party cadres rushed to embrace wind power that they have got ahead of themselves, and the state grid. Those turbines whose blades barely move have yet to be linked up to it. Officials say as many as half of China’s wind turbines stand impotently in the breeze, connected to nothing.
Neverthless, development in China’s wind power sector has been breathtaking, with generating capacity doubling in each of the past four years. The world’s second-largest energy user, China says that by 2020 it will bring total wind power capacity to 100GW, compared with 12GW today, with a view to generating 3 per cent of its electricity from non-hydro renewable energy. That gives China a lot to brag about when its delegates arrive in Copenhagen.

The wind farm at Jiuquan will yield 10GW. Its first phase will be completed next year, ahead of schedule. The second phase will double its capacity by 2020. By comparison, the massive Three Gorges dam will be able to produce 18.6GW.
“You could say that this is a very ambitious goal,” Wu Shengxue, of the National Development and Research Commission in Jiuquan, says. “At the same time it amounts to almost nothing when you look at China’s total demand.”
China wants to be more energy efficient and hopes to reduce its energy intensity — a measure of energy use in relation to the size of the economy — by 20 per cent by 2010. It also wants a greener mix of electricity.
Enormous state subsidies are helping to make wind part of that mix despite costing China’s grid 0.54 yuan (around 4.7 pence) per kilowatt-hour, double what it pays for power from fossil fuels. So it is no surprise China still relies on coal for 70 per cent of its electricity (last year the country overtook the US as the world’s biggest carbon emitter).
“We have to reduce our reliance on coal or China cannot develop,” Wu says. “The central government has set these targets and they must be met.”
China is already third in the world wind-power stakes, and the Gobi desert is ideal for wind farms. Here, the wind whistles down an almost perfectly flat corridor, where caravans once plied the Silk Road. And there are no herders or farmers to be moved out of the way.
The state subsidies have led to abuses, however. Many tenders have been won by huge state-owned companies that regard subsidies, rather than selling electricity, as their route to riches. Furthermore, China remains several steps behind the rest of the world in certain areas — particularly turbine control systems.
And there is another hurdle to overcome; the sheer separation between the wind farms of the interior and the major centres of power consumption in China’s coastal industrial heartland.
That means transmission is critical. China needs high-voltage transmission lines to move power over vast distances with minimal loss. Such systems are expensive, but China is already implementing new technology that has been allowed to languish on the drawing board in Europe and the US. Some 20 companies have been ordered to continue work on the cabling right through the freezing winter, when they would usually stop pouring cement because of the cold.
Of course, this is where China’s one-party government is able to bulldoze things through. “If the government decides this is a priority policy then officials pretty much have to fall into line,” Wu says. Besides, “green” has become a measure of individual performance and officials know failure to comply could jeopardise their promotion.
Zhao Jinquan is responsible for China’s largest solar-energy project in the ancient city of Dunhuang, due to open next year. He says it can’t afford to fall behind because, while solar power is more expensive now, coal could turn out to be even more costly. “We have to clean up the air, get rid of pollution and compensate workers who fall ill and miners killed in accidents,” he says.
With local governments and other vested interests still unsure if they want to pay more for clean power, that is an argument China’s leaders want to hear.