Why rise of wind farms is a ticking time bomb

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 October, 2010, 12:00am

China more than doubled its wind-power capacity last year and leads the world in gigawatts produced, but the rapid development is creating issues that will backfire in the future, according to an industrial report.

The mainland has more than 10,000 turbines with a world-leading total capacity of 13.8 GW, according to the 'China Wind Power Outlook', an annual survey by the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association released in Beijing on Wednesday.

The scale is equivalent to half the Three Gorges Dam, which took more than 10 years to build, dwarfing not only emerging markets such as India but also long-term players such as European countries and the United States.

The additional capacity boosted China's cumulative total to nearly 26 GW, or more than 16 per cent of the world's total.

The US has more wind farms than China, but China is installing more and may soon be No 1, according to Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, a contributor to the report.

'One of the most frequently asked questions in the industry is when China will take over from the United States. It could be at the end of this year,' Sawyer said. China's performance would enable the world's wind power capacity to continue growing at encouraging rates, he said.

'The Chinese market is doing better than we expected,' Sawyer said. 'The US market is doing worse, so they will likely balance out each other.'

Even the most optimistic environmentalists were surprised, according to Yang Ailun, campaigner for Greenpeace, another backer of the survey.

In 2004, Greenpeace projected that China could achieve the current wind-power capacity by 2020 under the most favourable conditions. 'It sounded like a fairy tale then, but we are there already,' Yang said.

The most optimistic projections say that because of a vast and geologically varying landscape plus one of the world's longest coastlines, China could one day get up to 2,500 GW from the wind. The council puts China's installed capacity at 509 GW by 2030, or nearly 17 per cent of the country's total electricity supply.

But the report projected only about half of that amount. Quality issues of domestic wind-power equipment, difficult integration with the existing power grid and persistent ambiguity in the government's long-term policy might hamper the industry before it can fully develop.

Dr Gao Hu, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission's Centre for Renewable Energy Development and an author of the report, said that the wind-power boom on the mainland in recent years had left behind quality 'time bombs' that, if not quickly and properly replaced, would blow up the industry's long-term growth.

Some turbines installed three or four years ago have already begun to show signs of ageing, with issues ranging from oil leaks and gearbox malfunctions to blades snapping, Gao said. They were supposed to last for a decade with little maintenance.

In China, more than 70 per cent of these troubled turbines were made by domestic manufacturers. Because they are made to meet lower standards than those overseas, 'our nightmare is an outbreak of quality issues across the country', Gao said.

'It has not happened yet, but if it happens, the time is likely to be 2011 or 2012, a generally accepted make-or-break point for the turbines.'

The power grid, the transmission vehicle for wind-generated electricity from offshore, the Gobi Desert or other remote and inaccessible areas to the developed regions, has imposed another bottleneck, according to the report. Li Junfeng , deputy director of the NDRC's Energy Research Institute and another author of the report, said that officials in charge of the state power grid had been trying to include the output from the wind farms into their existing infrastructure, but the process was painful and slow.

When the wind blows, the turbines often send an unexpected and sometimes fatal shock to the grid, that requires almost absolute co-ordination. The grid would feel more comfortable with the buffering effect of energy storage facilities, such as power storage stations and sodium-sulphur battery plants, but they were either too expensive or technically immature.

In Inner Mongolia , the largest of the seven wind energy bases under construction at the moment, more than a third of the wind turbines were not plugged into the power grid last year, according to Xinhua.

At the Copenhagen Conference on climate change in December, the government made a political commitment to increase the share of non-fossil energy in the country's energy demand to 15 per cent, but how much of that would be generated by wind remains uncertain.

The report urged the government to make a specific pledge to encourage investment and production.

Power surge

The mainland will soon have more wind farms than the US

China has a world-leading total capacity, in gigawatts, of: 13.8

 

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