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China Sees Unfulfilled Potential in Wind

Sep 28, 2009 - USA Today

Among the many people with concerns about the enormous wind turbines being built here, count Jing Xiuwan.

"Once the windmills start turning, it will rain much less," says Jing, 56, a farmer. "Everyone is worried."

That's a myth -- a common one in China. Yet the Chinese government and industry groups have legitimate worries about a wind power grid that they say has expanded too fast and with too little regulation.

China, the world's third-largest economy, has made green energy a priority.

The country has doubled its capacity for wind-generated power every year for the past four years, and President Hu Jintao pledged last week to turn to more sources of renewable energy in coming years.

However, many wind farms have been built far from populated areas or transmission grids, making their output largely useless for now. The China Electricity Council, a national industry group, says 28% of the country's wind power equipment sat idle at the end of 2008.

China's Cabinet declared last month that it would find ways to curb overcapacity and duplicated construction in the wind sector.

Coal provides 80% of China's electricity and much of its pollution. China's fast economic growth in recent decades has put the country ahead of the USA as the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas from coal.

Wind power provides 0.4% of China's electricity supply, according to the National Development and Reform Commission.

That compares with a little more than 1% in the USA, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade group.

Wang Yuxuan, an environmental scientist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says the potential for wind power in China is virtually limitless.

"In terms of both theory and resources, it is possible for China to meet all its electricity needs by 2030 from wind power," says Wang, part of a team from Tsinghua and Harvard universities that released a report this month on the possibilities for wind-generated electricity.

China would have to maintain its steep subsidies for wind power plus invest a total of $900 billion over the next 20 years, the report said.

The shift could cut 30% of China's carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, the report predicted.

Other experts are more skeptical. A study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates that wind-powered electricity will reach 10% of the total supply by 2030, says Li Jianlin, a wind power expert at the academy.

"Connecting the wind farms to national electric grids is very difficult and expensive," he says. "Also, most of our wind farms are located in remote areas where the (power) grid is weak."

The facility at Camel Mountain may enjoy better prospects, because it is the first wind farm near Dalian, a relatively prosperous coastal city that hosted a meeting this month of the World Economic Forum.

In contrast, the Helanshan wind farm in northwestern Ningxia province is more typical -- it lies far from China's booming cities in a windy, but isolated, area.

"We're located far from the main (power) grid. So at first, our electricity supply was weak and our costs high, but recent adjustments have improved our distribution," says Li Gening, who works at Helanshan.

Many projects have been built on sites with less consistent winds and are less productive, says Anders Brendstrup, a Beijing-based executive at Camco China, a clean energy company.

In windy Inner Mongolia, several projects that were to be connected to the grid next year will be delayed until 2013, Brendstrup says.

The popular misconceptions about the wind farms may be easier to solve, Wang says.

She compares the concerns over the wind farms' impact in China to worries in the West that they "will hurt birds or be noisy."

"Wind farms will not influence rainfall," she says. "Our government should tell the farmers not to worry." (c) Copyright 2009 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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