Energy & Resources

Wind up merchants

Scientists claim China could be powered almost entirely by turbines

Waiting on a revolution: wind can meet more of China's power demands

They wanted a headline, and they got one. A National Climate Centre (NCC) report due for full release in July has been trailed this month with excerpts that claim: “Wind can power up entire nation.” Or in other words, that wind-generated power could support China’s entire demand for electricity this year.

‘Could’ is the operative word, of course, as wind power is in no position to meet that level of demand right now. Current generating capacity is at something like 12 gigawatts (GW) or a little over 1% of the current national power supply.

What the NCC is talking about is rather different: If You Build It, It Will Blow might have been the appropriate tagline.

That’s because an intensive investigation of onshore wind resources across the county has led to estimates of a possible 700GW to 1,200GW of wind-powered electricity. As the country’s total generating capacity today is 790GW, the scientists conclude that wind could power a nation – if it was asked too.

Xiao Ziniu, director of the NCC, is excited about the study (data was collected from more than 400 wind towers set up across the country) because it has led experts to triple their wind resource forecasts.

The industry does not need too much buoying up, as it is doubling capacity every year. It is now second only to the US in installed capacity.

Analysts also expect it to surpass its targeted 30GW by 2020 with ease, helped by a supportive Renewable Energy Law and a policy environment that requires that 70% of turbine parts used in domestic wind farms be manufactured at home.

This has helped seed an ecosystem of wind component manufacturers, and contributed to a cost of turbines that is more competitive than anywhere else in the world. Chinese suppliers Goldwind, Dongfang and Sinovel have forced their way into global markets as a result.

The NCC project was also geared towards identifying where wind-generation facilities are best located. It already had a reasonable idea – ridgelines, open plains, gaps in mountains, shorelines or (if offshore) at least 10km out to sea – but the additional research will be seized on by the industry’s cheerleaders.

The findings point to the potential of a number of poorer areas of China too. The Xinjiang Uigur autonomous region is estimated to have over 100GW of generating potential on its own, for example. Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Hebei and Jiangsu are also full of puff.

Of course, wind farms built in more remote regions then have to transmit the generated power to the areas where need is greatest. And this points to bottlenecks that need to be addressed if wind really is to take on more of the power load.

Julian Wu at Green Leap Forward says that anywhere from 25% to 50% of current capacity does not even reach the electricity grid. In some cases this is because the different stakeholders – the project developers, turbine manufacturers and grid companies – are not working together to ensure that the turbines are connected to the grid. In others, there is a lack of grid infrastructure to cope with the extra load or to reach wind farms situated in remote areas.

Even if infrastructure is not an issue, there is often insufficient financial incentive for grid companies to connect to wind farms, Wu says, as they do not want the hassle of coping with the intermittent nature of power generated by wind installations. Clearly, before it starts calling on Mother Nature to do her bit, the industry will need to get its own house into better order.


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