China's Grid-limited Wind Energy Potential

China's wind power industry barely noticed the international financing crisis, doubling installations in 2008  for the fifth year in a row. Readers of Spectrum shouldn't be surprised, as we documented the state and market share-driven industry's insensitivity to quaint financial targets such as profitability last May. What may ultimately check China's seemingly unstoppable wind power surge is the capacity of its power grids to absorb the resulting energy.

That conclusion emerges when one examines a report in Science last week by researchers at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Beijing's Tsinghua University, which combines meteorological and engineering models to predict that wind farms could meet all new electricity demand in China through 2030 at reasonably low cost. My coverage of the report, published yesterday by MIT's Technology Review.com, concludes that China's grid is the key hurdle to realizing this bold prediction, noting hopefully that China is already leading the world in the development of high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission technology -- the sort needed to share variable renewable energy sources such as wind power on a trans-continental scale, thereby minimizing the power supply's vulnerability to regional weather patterns.

Projected Capacity Factors for China. Credit: Michael McElroyAnalysts, however, doubt that China can build such renewables-ready supergrids fast enough to replace anticipated additions of coal and nuclear power, as projected by the Harvard-Tsinghua report. Caitlin Pollock, who prepares Asia wind market forecasts for Cambridge, MA-based consutancy Emerging Energy Research, says grid challenges make the growth level proposed "unfeasible and unlikely." She notes that grid integration already lags wind-farm installation: "While China’s wind market has indeed doubled for the past two years, approximately 30% of this new capacity remained unconnected to the grid at the end of each year."

Pollock says the Chinese government's ambitious Wind Power Base initiative, which calls for at least 10 GW of new wind capacity in seven provinces/regions through 2015, is actually "an effort to regulate wind growth." The projects involve grid operators at an early stage, thus aligning build-out of the wind farms with coordinated grid expansions.

And she points out that the government still perceives a need to balance new wind development with new baseload plants fed with coal and nuclear, to ensure there's a button to press when power demand is high. For example, western Gansu province's massive Wind Power Base project, whose 20-gigawatt proposed capacity for 2020 would exceed the entire country's current wind power base, is accompanied by an equally monstrous coal-fired power complex. The latter, which commenced construction last month, could be generating up to 13.6 gigawatts by 2020 -- the equivalent of 17 of the world-scale coal-fired power plants under construction in Germany.

The bottom line: Don't count coal out yet. And hope for climate's sake that carbon sequestration pans out.

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