Environment

Gansu’s gusty ambitions

Controversy over Jiuquan’s mega wind farm

Gansu has big plans for these

It is said that the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu was so obsessed with immortality that he bankrupted the national treasury building his tomb, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

China’s rulers are still solvent but can be just as fixated on grand designs too. A recent count put the country’s mega-projects at 108 – including the world’s longest cable bridge and its highest railway.

Many of those plans have proved controversial, and the candidate for number 109 is no different.

Jiuquan in Gansu may be a dusty old Silk Road town on the edge of the Gobi Desert but it’s rich in at least on natural resource: wind. So for the last two years officials have sought to turn it into one of the country’s largest wind farms. Their plan is to erect a steel forest of turbines capable of generating 10GW of electricity for the national grid (enough to power New Zealand).

And that’s just for starters. Gansu province already has more than 5.5GW of turbines (13% of the national total) and could end up spending more than $18 billion growing that to 40GW. The project’s potentially enormous size has earned it the nickname ‘the Three Gorges on land’. (The world’s largest dam has a planned capacity of 22.5GW).

At first glance, the Jiuquan wind farms look like prime examples of investments on a scale that few other countries can match. So why do officials at the National Energy Administration (NEA) seem so enraged by the plans?

Last month, at about the same time the Three Gorges Dam was coming under fire from Beijing (see WiC109), Jiuquan’s bosses were also fending off criticism, that they had let projects go ahead without NEA approval.

“[Wind farm] construction is prohibited without it,” said a notice from the energy body, “and it is forbidden to split projects into smaller sizes… for quicker approvals.”

The reason for the NEA’s concern: problems with turbine technology that threaten the functionality of the elecricity grid. These include issues with short circuiting and voltage fluctuation for the grid, as well as shoddy construction of the wind farms themselves. (Not to mention worries that the planned ‘ultra high voltage’ transmission lines won’t work as well as planned).

Unsurprisingly, Jiuquan’s local officials take issue with the directive. “We’ve never broken ground without approval,” Wu Shengxue, director of the Jiuquan Energy Development Office, explained to Southern Weekly, a newspaper. “But prior to receiving approvals, we indulge in some preliminary work since we’re in a real hurry.”

Nicely worded, Mr Wu. But his eagerness is understandable. Jiuquan is still trying to recover from the decline of the Yumen oil fields (which WiC wrote about back in January). “Now that we have the opportunity [to invest in wind power],” says Wu, “why shouldn’t we ‘race against time’ to grasp it?”

The Jiuquan project has reported a few problems. In February, poor cable insulation at one location started a chain reaction that threatened a regional blackout. (A short circuit led to a voltage spike that put the 10 neighbouring farms out of commission). Something similar occurred at a separate farm in April.

Technology exists to prevent such threats to grid stability (called ‘low voltage ride through capability’). But it’s expensive and most wind farms choose not to purchase it. That’s despite State Grid, by far the largest power grid firm, saying it should be mandatory.

“The regulation was not enforced,” writes Southern Weekly magazine, “since it was just a corporate document and not an official one.”


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