China Power

‘Blowing in the Wind?’: China’s Energy Future

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China Power

‘Blowing in the Wind?’: China’s Energy Future

Despite persistent challenges, a new Greenpeace report finds wind power might have a bright future in China.

As the trade war over solar panels between the United States and China continues to heat up – with Europe also none too happy – Greenpeace East Asia has released a report examining the state of the other important renewable energy source in China, wind. The 2012 version of the annual report "China Wind Power Outlook" has shown encouraging signs of wind power spreading further into the country's densely populated regions.

At the end of 2011, total installed capacity of wind power in the country had reached 62.36 GW, up from 44.73 GW the year before. This capacity figure generated 71.5 billion kilowatt hours, or 1.5% of the national total electricity output. The report predicts that this will surge to between 200-300 GW by 2020, and over 400 GW by 2030. By that later date wind power will occupy 8.4% of the country's total electricity generation, and 15% of China's installed capacity.

Much like coal, the provinces rich in wind resources are in the north and northwest regions of the country. In 2011 Inner Mongolia held onto its position as the nation's leader in installed wind capacity, with a total installed capacity of 17.59 GW (28% of the country's total). Following Inner Mongolia are Hebei, Gansu and Liaoning, each with total installed capacities of over 5 GW.

Although wind in China is quickly approaching parity with coal, a logistical challenge lies in getting this energy to the densely populated coastal regions in the east and southeast. For coal this has always meant transporting the black, sooty material in trucks and trains across the nation, being sent from the mines of the coal belts to power plants located near the sites of consumption. Obviously this isn't possible with wind, and overcoming such a barrier will be a crucial challenge to increasing the role wind power plays in China's energy mix. 

Since 2009 the Chinese government has had a feed-in tariff scheme in place to encourage wind energy production. According to Li Shuo, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, the scheme divides China into four different regions according to different levels of wind resources, with four fixed electricity price rates, ranging between 0.51-0.61 RMB/ kWh generated. This fixed rate is generally higher than the cost of project development and therefore guarantees the certainty of investment return for the wind projects.

Li says this scheme highlights the importance of grid connectivity. "Because the operator only receives the fixed rate of return when they generate electricity and when this electricity is digested by the grid, the economy of each individual wind farm is determined by how much electricity it can generate and feed back into the grid." 

"This is where the grid-connection issue and power curtailment comes in. The former is basically a lack of infrastructure, such as wires and transformers, the latter is a problem when you actually have the infrastructure to connect the wind farm to the grid but abandon the wind power generated to make way for baseload capacity, such as coal and nuclear power. So grid connection can be understood as a physical infrastructure issue and curtailment is a matter of how the grid dispatches among different sources of energy within its network."

There are two grid companies in China. The State Grid covers virtually the entire country, while the Southern Grid covers only five southern provinces. Within the State Grid, the network and management system is further divided into different regional areas. In essence the grid is a state monopoly, and it has often resisted making the necessary technical changes to accommodate wind energy. Fossil fuel energy currently comprises more than 90% of the country's energy mix.

That said, while the changes have been slow, this latest report does show positive signs for wind, such as an increase of local production in the country's densely populated areas. According to the report, "by the end of 2011, Guangxi, Qinghai, Guizhou, Shaanxi, Henan, Ningxia, Tianjin, Yunnan and Anhui saw two-fold growth in installed wind power capacity as compared to 2010. Except for Qinghai and Ningxia, all the other provinces are non-traditional markets. And 32 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions across China (including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) had wind farms. Nine of which had combined installed capacities of over 2GW each."

While energy in China has traditionally been seen as the realm of state control via the supremely powerful state owned enterprises, renewable energy poses a small but not insignificant opportunity for individual power consumers to have a say. High density populated areas are prime for decentralized renewable energies (decentralized here meaning the place where energy is generated is close or even at the same place where it is consumed). Li mentions rooftop solar as one excellent example of a renewable energy tool that suits the resource condition of eastern and central China and is consumer driven.

And frankly, the government needs as much public support at it can get if they hope to achieve their targets for non-fossil fuel energy consumption. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) set the goal of bringing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 11.4%, and increasing installed generating capacity from non-fossil fuels to 30% by the end of 2015. 

"China has built up impressive renewable energy manufacturing capacities over a very short period of time. With step one already accomplished, it's high time that China shift its own energy consumption to a cleaner one," says Li.

Monica Tan is a writer and Beijing-based web editor for Greenpeace East Asia. The views expressed in this article reflect those of Greenpeace.