Haibing Ma on China’s wind power woes

Haibing Ma of the Worldwatch Institute said many of China’s wind turbines can’t connect to the country’s larger electric grid.

China is developing wind power, but it’s taking longer than expected, according to energy policy expert Haibing Ma of the Worldwatch Institute.

Wind farm in Xinjiang, China. Image Credit: Kiwi Mikex

Ma told EarthSky that right now China relies mostly on coal to generate its power. As a result, China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas produced by coal-burning. Carbon dioxide is known to contribute to global warming.

Ma said China is trying to increase its use of alternative sources of energy. To that end, the country has installed billions of dollars worth of wind turbines. In fact, Ma said, in 2010, China surpassed the United States as the country with the most wind turbines installed.

But despite China’s recent upsurge in wind farms, Ma said, there’s an infrastructure problem that hasn’t been widely reported. He said many of China’s wind turbines can’t connect to the country’s larger electric grid. There aren’t enough cables, wires and related technology to bring wind-generated electricity from rural Mongolia, according to Ma. That’s where most of China’s wind turbines are located – far from the densely populated hubs of China’s northeast and south, where electricity is most needed

That’s why, Ma believes, over the next few years China will still have to rely on increased energy efficiency in industry and further development of hydroelectric and nuclear power.

The Chinese government is aware of its wind-related infrastructure challenges, Ma said, and has set aside billions of dollars to try to make its electric grid more robust and compatible with wind farms over the next five years.

Ma added that China has set a significant goal of reducing about 40 to 45 percent of carbon emissions (relative to 2005 levels) per unit of gross domestic product by the year 2020.

By then, China’s windpower might be up and running, so that it can contribute significantly to the long-term energy goals of the Chinese goverment. That is – according to Ma – the central government of China, as of 2011, has set aside about 400 billion dollars over a five-year period to improve China’s nationwide transmission networks. Ma indicated that financing has been an added challenge to the development of Chinese windpower. He said:

For instance, Inner Mongolia, the most wind-abundant region in the nation, has its own grid company which doesn’t belong to the two state-owned grid companies, the State Grid and the Southern Grid, that basically cover the rest of the country. So, when it comes to the question of who should put money on the table to build up massive grid infrastructure to transmit Inner Mongolia’s rapidly growing wind-generated electricity [output] to the east and south, neither the grid companies nor the central government have figured out a clear plan yet.

In early 2011, Ma said, China outlined its more short-term intention to reduce a percentage of what’s called its carbon intensity by 2015. It did this in its new Five Year Plan. Ma said China aims to cut the amount of energy and carbon dioxide emissions needed for every unit of economic growth by 16-17 percent from 2011 to the end of 2015. China’s total carbon emissions might not shrink, though, because China’s economy and energy needs are still growing. Ma said that China’s investment in renewables, too, are quickly increasing.

For example, in 2001, China only installed about 400 million watts of wind capacity. By the end of 2010, China had installed more than 44 gigawatts. That’s a more than 100 times increase in less than 10 years. Especially in between 2005 and 2009, China’s installed wind capacity doubled every year.

Even with limited reliance on windpower, Haibing Ma reiterated that, by the year 2015, the amount of carbon dioxode emitted per unit of Gross Domestic Product or GDP – the sum total of China’s goods and services – is expected to decrease.

In other words, China should require less carbon input (relative to 2005 input levels) per unit of economic output.

Beth Lebwohl

MORE ARTICLES