China on world's 'biggest push' for wind power


David Shukman watches one of China's giant wind farms take shape

China has embarked on the greatest push for renewable energy the world has ever seen.

A key element involves more than doubling the number of wind turbines in the next six years.

Already the world's largest producer of wind power, China plans further massive increases.

From a current installed capacity of 75 gigawatts (GW), the aim is to achieve a staggering 200GW by 2020.

By contrast, the European Union countries together have just over 90GW of installed wind capacity.

The far western province of Xinjiang is one of seven areas designated for wind development.

Against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, turbines are massed in their thousands over the frozen desert.

New units are being installed in a frenzy of construction in which the pace of work has been accelerated.

Jiang Bo, an engineer with the manufacturer Goldwind, told me: "Seven years ago we could only do one wind turbine in about two days - but our current speed is that we can do two in one day."

However, integrating this surge in wind power has posed a series of challenges.

Turbine construction Reduced prices could make Chinese-made turbines more appealing to buyers abroad

The windiest regions, such as Xinjiang, tend to be extremely distant from the biggest cities where the electricity is most needed.

And the construction of wind farms has often outstripped the building of the connections needed to link the turbines to the grid.

The grid itself, accustomed to handling the predictable output of power stations burning coal, has struggled to cope with the intermittency of wind.

The result has been that some wind farms have been ordered to shut down even on windy days - a process known as curtailment.

Last year as many as 20%-30% of turbines across China were left idle at particular times but wind industry officials say the problem is now being tackled.

A more fundamental question is the likely contribution of wind power to China's insatiable demand for energy.


The most recent figures, for 2012, show that wind only generated 2% of the country's electricity. Coal, the largest contributor, generated 75%.

However, since China's total generation is more than that of all European Union countries combined, wind's percentage is large in absolute terms.

Liming Qiao, China director of the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), said: "Two per cent sounds small but it's not when you consider China's total electricity.

"In fact, last year wind surpassed nuclear to become number three after coal and hydro, and it's got a lot more potential."

The sheer scale of the wind market is encouraging mass production which has lowered prices and fostered innovation.

Until recently, Chinese wind manufacturers produced Western-designed turbines under licence. Some acquired a reputation for turning out inferior products.

Now, the wind boom has led to a flurry of new designs. Goldwind, for example, offers a turbine which does not need a gearbox but instead has a "direct drive" system designed to be cheaper to maintain.

Wind farm Workers are putting up two turbines per day at the Xinjiang wind farm

According to Paolo Frankl of the International Energy Agency, developments in China will drive down prices globally.

"As with any other things, what China does has an impact on the whole world and China is contributing to the reduction in the cost of wind in two ways:

"One being the most important market in the world with large deployments and, second, with a very robust and active manufacturing capacity."

Mr Frankl expects reduced prices to make Chinese turbines more appealing to buyers abroad.

"The export ratio of the Chinese producers will increase and they'll find new markets in Asian countries, Latin America and Africa," he said.

The Chinese government has set renewable energy as a strategic priority and supports the push for wind through a system of subsidies.

The crisis in air pollution in many Chinese cities has added a further rationale for renewable energy - beyond the aims of energy security and lower carbon emissions.

Still open is the question of whether wind's costs can ever be driven below those of coal, China's energy backbone.

Wind power facility The Chinese government has set renewable energy as a strategic priority

Ma Jinru, a vice president of Goldwind, looks forward to a time when fossil fuels will be scarcer and subject to carbon pricing.

"One day in the future when the resources become limited and the price gets higher and pollution gets worse, then society will charge the social cost for that, so in the long term the cost of wind energy can be cheaper than coal.

"And the cost of wind energy will drop through technical innovation, so the wind energy sector will have a huge huge growth in the whole electricity supply."

If any country can industrialise wind power and make it pay, it's China.

And a glimpse of its future can be found beside the Silk Road in Xinjiang: along this ancient trade route stand white metallic forests of turbines, some completed, others waiting to be fitted with blades, and many more planned.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    #78 In theory pumped hydro would be a good one, but in this country as far as I know we've already developed all the suitable sites for it, and that trying to develop others would involve effectively killing off the contents of whatever valley you use, that's the main problem which makes it a worse method than synthesising fuel for our current infrastructure

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    It is true that the Chinese dictatorship is building wind farms fastrer than any other country.
    But in this comaprison, Europa as an entity should be compared to China and the US.
    Europe and China each doe about 27 %
    And the turbines shown in the video are from Dutch designers
    But the fossil regime in the Netherlands does not want wind power biusiness success

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Do they have diesel generator back up like ours do ?
    .... or have they built plenty of proper power stations to fill in when they are idle
    Well when you've got oodles of cash to spend why not.
    Plus in doing so it allows them to counter all the criticism they get from the Global Warming believers keeping the politics cosy, plus it may keep them off Santas Greenpeace naughty list this year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    One of the statements of the article is not true: "the European Union countries together have just over 90GW of installed wind capacity". The EU had 106 GW of wind installed capacity by 31/12/2012. Source: "Renewable Energy Snapshots 2012", p. 34.
    In addition, China produced 100.2 TWh of wind electricity and the EU around 180 TWh in 2012 (Eurostat official figures only published by July 2014)

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The problem I see here is that the natural beauty of China and Tibet is under threat.. while I love the idea of breathing clean air in Beijing, I fear for the natural environment and the scenic areas.. Perhaps massive underground geo-thermal or underground / inside mountain based hydroelectric plants (such as electric mountain in north wales) could be a more efficient source of energy

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Once again I agree with the lowest rated rather than the highest on a greeny global warming issue.

    Someone is bonkers and I don't think it is me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    China is still playing catch up with the west so even with renwables making headway they'll still need every bit of coal they can get,. whether it be electrical generation, or coal to liquids programs to produce vehicle fuels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    " China approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity in 2013"

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Mr Comber; even better if the turbines are close coupled to the water pumps, either mechanically or electrically. Then you remove one of the biggest inefficiencies; making synchronous mains frequency. An electric water pump doesn't care too much about the frequency, and thus the window of suitable wind speeds is greatly enlarged. Build big lagoons out to sea, put the turbines round that. Simples!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    76. Arcid

    Wind turbines energy can be used to pump water into a reservoir and then said water can be released when needed. Simples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I am always disappointed that more hasn't been done with wave power. Forty years on from successful demonstrations and they are still doing trials. It seems they are stuck in a govt funded "research" phase and will never actually reach full scale, I wonder why ?

    Wave machines are more powerful and have a lower visual impact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    #74 That's rather the point, nobody worries about the jetty being empty because that doesn't interfere with the stations ability to generate power, you can't shovel a large pile of wind into the corner to keep the turbines running on a still day though, thus the need to have some form of storage of the electricity generated, which is where hydrocarbon synthesis comes in

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I am from the UK we too like wind turbines, I like the fact they are well supported by the government here and am proud of the fact about 60 super giants have gone up within a few minutes drive of where I live in East Riding recently - almost every direction you drive past some. In fact I have heard the nation grid here is saturated now. Well done UK!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    66. Arcid
    The biggest problem with wind power is the fact that it is intermittant
    The problem with wind turbines is that people keep comparing them to power stations when they are only transducers. A fair comparison would be wind turbines and boilers. A coal power station has a vast stock yard fed with intermittent coal shipments yet nobody points out that the jetty's occasionally vacant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    ".. wind only generated 2% of the country's electricity. Coal, the largest contributor, generated 75%." If, as I discussed previously, wind capacity grows at 3 percentage points more than nominal GDP, wind will produce 2.4% in 2020, and coal 74.7%, ceteris paribus. Even if the extra wind growth is 5 percentage points, you still only get wind at 2.6% and coal at 74.5%. Staggering, indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    "China has embarked on the greatest push for renewable energy the world has ever seen."
    This is an exciting article.
    Liming Qiao, China director of the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), said: "In fact, last year wind surpassed nuclear to become number three after coal & hydro, & it's got a lot more potential."
    I realize there are "challenges", but China is demonstrably committed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    From 2008 to 2012, China's nominal GDP growth averaged about 14.5%. If their turbine count merely grew commensurately, they would attain about 170GW capacity by 2020. By targeting 200GW, and assuming similar current output growth, they are planning to increase their wind capacity/yuan GDP by a modest 3% p.a. Your use of the adjective "staggering" here is rather sensationalist, don't you think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I love the fact that a Communist country like China is showing the Capitalist West how to invest in infrastructure in order to see a profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    With China investing in wind, it won't be long before they are pushing our government into using more green energy, which can only be good for us. We owe China so much money, they won't want us to spend that money on lobbyist companies invested in old non-green technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Spring festival is coming, which starts from the first day of Chinese lunar calendar. Uneducated people in rural, and also a lot of people who want to be wealthy in urban will set off firecracker during Spring festival. Air quality will be worst, you don't really want to go out in such a smoggy day.


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