Giant wind turbines extend for tens of kilometres at the foot of the Altun Mountains in China’s Gobi Desert, generating power that is sent around the country every day via the national grid. They started springing up in 2016 near Lenghu, in the northwestern province of Qinghai, where the average wind speed is 7 metres per second and with investment from the likes of state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group. But now another lofty project is casting a shadow over the town’s renewable energy ambitions. The largest astronomical observatory in the eastern hemisphere is being built atop a nearby mountain, with restrictions in place on outdoor light sources and humidity changes in the area. Wind turbines near the site are a problem, according to astronomer Deng Licai, who led the team that found one of the world’s best stargazing sites on Saishiteng Mountain. “The blinking red lights on top of the wind turbines could ruin the night skies and interfere with observation into the deeper, dimmer universe,” said Deng, from the National Astronomical Observatories. “Their huge blades can also trap wind fields and cause water vapour to accumulate.” Like existing world-class observatories in Chile, Hawaii and Spain, the success of telescopes at the site near Lenghu – located 4,200 metres (13,800 feet) above sea level – will depend on the environment being dark and dry, with stable air. To achieve that, Qinghai authorities last year issued a regulation prohibiting any new construction or activity that affects astronomical observation within a 50km radius of the mountain – known as the “core protection area” – from January 1, 2023. Anyone who breaks the rules faces a fine of up to 500,000 yuan (US$72,400), according to the regulation – the first of its kind in China. Deng said wind turbines already in use within the core protection area would be able to continue operating. “We probably won’t do anything with the existing wind turbines. However, the ones being constructed in or planned for the core area will have to be relocated,” Deng said. That will also apply to the solar farms in the area – though they are on a smaller scale than the wind farms – since solar panels could become more reflective at night, he added. According to residents, Lenghu’s wind and solar projects have given the town a much-needed boost. “This area is barren and we used to make a living by exploiting carbon-based resources,” said Wang Dong, who runs a tourism company in Lenghu. “Now we’re part of a national strategic move to build huge renewable energy bases in western China, which will benefit the local economy and the country’s low-carbon transition.” Energy storage: what you need to know about China’s plans for wind, solar power Wang moved to Lenghu with his family as a child and recalls the boom when a major oilfield was discovered there in the 1950s. He said there were about 100,000 people living in the town in its heyday, with schools, banks and a theatre. But by the early 1990s – after the oilfield had been emptied and abandoned – most people had moved away. Today Lenghu is home to just over 200 residents, though in summer tourists come to see the remains of the old oil town and the desert landscape. Aside from the wind and solar farms, there are a few potash fertiliser factories nearby and a gas field. “I feel like these wind and solar farms are our town’s new contribution to the country,” Wang said. Astronomer Deng stressed that projects outside the core protection area would not be affected by the regulation. They include a second gigawatt-level renewable energy base that is being built south of Lenghu, part of the province’s development plan to 2025. In December, German chemicals group Covestro agreed to buy around 300GWh of renewable energy power annually from China General Nuclear Power Group’s wind and solar farms in Lenghu, to support its production site in Shanghai. China has pledged to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions before 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2060.