Why China Is Having So Many Problems Ramping Up Wind Power
Comment of the Day

May 23 2016

Commentary by David Fuller

Why China Is Having So Many Problems Ramping Up Wind Power

China holds the record as the world’s top wind installer, accounting for about a third of the total global installed wind capacity. The United States trails in second place, accounting for just more than 17 percent. But despite its higher total capacity, China still isn’t putting out as much wind-generated electricity as the United States. In other words, it has built the technology, but it just is not able to use it to the max.

New research, published Monday in the journal Nature Energy by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing, Harvard University and other U.S. and Chinese universities, examines a handful of factors thought to be responsible for the discrepancy, using a mathematical approach to evaluate the relative importance of each.

Wind turbines can produce only as much energy as the wind provides — so the researchers were interested in whether differences in wind flow could account for some of China’s problems. But they found that these differences played a relatively small role. Although the United States tends to get superior winds nationwide, the researchers point out that China has approached this issue by promoting more development in the regions with the best wind resources, mostly to its north and northeast.

Instead, the findings suggest that the primary challenges to wind power in China involve lower turbine quality, delayed connections to the grid and grid operators failing to transmit wind power to users in favor of other energy sources, such as coal — all of which play about equally important roles.

These issues are capable of putting a substantial dent in China’s wind electricity output, it turns out. The researchers noted that in 2012, China’s wind-generated electricity was 39.3 terawatt-hours less than that of the United States.

“This is a large number — larger than the total amount of wind power generated in the United Kingdom in 2015, which can power around 8 million UK homes,” wrote Joanna Lewis, an associate professor and expert on China’s energy landscape at Georgetown University, in a comment on the new study, also published Monday in Nature Energy.  

To evaluate the quality of turbines in China — which, the authors note, has not been done in previous studies — the researchers used the output from a specific type of wind installation (the GE 2.5 megawatt turbine) as a standard for comparison, concluding that overall turbine quality in the United States is higher than in China. They chalked up the quality issues to a need for “technology catch-up” in domestically produced turbines, which account for most of the installations in the country. The fix in this case is relatively simple: The authors recommend a short-term switch to more international suppliers, while focusing on domestic research and development efforts and technology transfer agreements with other nations in the long term.

David Fuller's view

Credit to China for being the world’s fastest developing economy, even as it struggles with monumental transformational challenges, which it is also attempting to resolve in record time. 

China could improve its wind power and other renewable energies by importing state-of-the-art equipment from leading international suppliers, and it may do so to a limited extent.  However, this might not hasten its own domestic development of superior equipment.  China clearly wants to be competitive in many technologies, not only for domestic consumption but also to be a leading exporter of these products.  The PRC is already a formidable competitor in a number of industries and is likely to be even more so in the future.  The competition will be fiercely competitive but this will only boost creative development and should be an additional spur to long-term global GDP growth.   

(See also Eoin’s leader on China below.)

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