Chasing the Wind: China's Critical Pursuit of Alternative Energy

The Global Wind Energy Council just released some fascinating 2008 year-end data, and there are two big stories that are grabbing everyone's attention. First, there is the news that America has overtaken Germany to become the global leader in wind power installations. But the second story is even more eye-catching. China's total wind power capacity has doubled for the fourth year in a row, going from 6 GW of total capacity at the end of 2007 to 12 GW by the end of 2008. Over the next decade China plans to install 10 GW power bases in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, and Jiangsu, which will not only mean a fifth consecutive year of doubled capacity, but it will also move them past Germany and Spain in the global rankings sometime in 2010. Such mind-blowing numbers are found nowhere else but China, where development in most industries has been skyrocketing for years now on an unparalleled scale.

Given the current environmental challenges, it's obvious why most countries in the world are pursing wind as an emission-free power source. Global warming is finally an urgent priority for governments in the developed world, particularly for the US and the new Obama administration. But China has even more at stake. While climate change is certainly a motivating factor, there far more variables at work in the Chinese power equation.

The Tragic Cost of Coal

Accidents are far to common in Chinese Coal MinesAccidents are far to common in Chinese Coal Mines

The vast majority of China's power comes from coal, with approximately 300,000 megawatts of coal-fired energy currently online. And while the global trend is to move away from dirty coal power for environmental reasons, China has a over a million tragic reasons why it needs wind power, and needs it in a hurry. According numbers recently released by, at least 1.3 million coal workers have died in coal mine accidents since 1995.  Or course the Chinese media framed this new data in a positive light to show that accidents have dropped 15% in 2008. But 91,172 deaths are still staggering, and in any other country it would be deemed a national emergency of the highest priority.

The Sichuan Earthquake and Zipingpu Dam 

Relief workers at Zipingyu DamRelief workers at Zipingyu Dam

The tragic earthquake last year in Sichuan province killed at least 70,000 people.  Those numbers are even more lamentable when you consider the possibility that this disaster might have been human-made. Scientists suspect that the Zipingyu Dam, which lies 3.4 miles from the Wenchuan epicenter, may have triggered the Sichuan earthquake by adding pressure on top of an already high stress area. The Zipingyu Dam was built to generate hydroelectric power, intended to stimulate growth in the area. 

Population density in China makes ventures like Zipingyu Dam especially risky. Of course this also applies to the gigantic Three Gorges Dam, which amazing also sits on a seismic fault.  The largest hydroelectric project this planet has ever seen, scientists similarly speculate on the threat to human life that this dam poses.  In addition to the million people already displaced by the dam, many in the area are now at risk to dangerous landslides caused by erosion near the damn reservoir. And then there is the horrifying possibility that should the dam itself eventually break, downstream populations would be wiped out.

Three Gorges DamThree Gorges Dam

A Different Breed of Pollution

A report release by state media in 2007 estimated that the average life expectancy of Chinese city traffic police is 43 years of age. The primary cause (aside from the stress of the job) was air pollution, and respiratory diseases were the most common afflictions. China surpassed the US as the number one polluter in the world in 2008, and one has to wonder how 1.3 billion pairs of lungs will fair long term in that kind of environment.

Smokers in China sometimes jokingly excuse their addictions by saying that tobacco smoke can't be much worse than the air around them. While that's certainly an exaggeration, they might have a point here. Consider the anti-smoking campaigns in America that aim to not only prevent smoking-related deaths, but also aim to preemptively reduce future health care costs. Similarly, China should be concerned about air quality in its urban centers, if it wants to avoid astronomical health care costs in its future.

Craving an Innovation Reputation

China strength has always been in manufacturing. For years, it has been labeled "The Workshop of the World," where factories produce goods for foreign countries to consume. Outsourced work that no one else is willing to do, China can get it done, and for bottom dollar too. Needless to say, doing the world's dirty work doesn't fit in with their long-standing super-power ambition, and it only serves to feed China's national inferiority complex.

Similarly, China's equally long-standing reputation as counterfeiters and copiers is a stigma that is proving hard to shake as well. Life under communism hindered Chinese creativity in the past, and today's increasingly capitalist China is now struggling to break free of that handicap so as to excel in the global economy. C2C, or "Copy to China," just won't cut it anymore, especially in contrast with the oft-hated rival Japan, always on the cutting edge of technology. These days, despite the current economic crisis, China is putting unprecedented funding into R&D as it tries to move one step ahead in innovation, rather than a few steps behind as it has always been.

China's BYD E6 Electric CarChina's BYD E6 Electric Car

We have already begun to see the fruits of such efforts. Take for example, Chinese carmaker BYD, who at this year's Consumer Electronics Show stunned the tech community by announcing that their electric BYD E6 concept car gets 250 miles on a single charge. Compare that to a similar car in the works at Ford (slated for 2011), which can only go 100 miles for every full charge.


Can China move forward on Wind Power?

They can, and they will. But they are going to have to import foreign help, and indeed have already begun to do so. Denmarks's Vestas will open it's fifth factory in China this year, and according to the China Wind and Energy Association (CWEA), General Electric and A-Power have already signed letters of intent to provide 900 wind turbine gearboxes and establish a joint venture to build a wind turbine assembly facility. That said, China is making progress on the domestic front as well, taking a page from Britain and Denmark and exploring offshore wind power, which in China is said to have three times the potential of land wind resources. China's first project offshore project was the Shanghai Donghai Bridge wind farm, and preliminary work is underway for offshore windfarms in other coastal provinces as well.

There is also a major conference scheduled for June 22 of this year where China will showcase its progress to date.  Their strong point will continue to be in manufacturing, and you can bet that the growing wind power market will further stimulate Chinese production of wind turbines and components. China has already made progress already in the UK and Japan, and has ambitions to sell to the US market in years to come.

Of course the bottom line here is not about which country is selling technology to the other. But rather, it's about the fact that the two worst polluting countries are finally making an effort to clean up their act. For China, it's especially critical because safe and sustainable development cannot be attained without it.

Mar 3, 2009
by Anonymous

Wind power is pure crap

Denmark is a perfect example of how bad wind power really can be. After errecting more wind per capita than anyplace on Earth, Denmark's carbon emissions actually increased slightly. They now buy electricity from their hydroeletric neighbors for full price during the day and sell their unusable wind power for peanuts at night (or just dump it). You'd think that people would realize that the wind blows intermittantly at random, mostly when people don't need peak power. It's time to campaign against this crappy, useless, expensive means of making electricity. I demand that wind proponents quit lying about their alternative energy and inform the public that errecting wind towers will provide zero ability to meet new demand levels each year.
It is a total waste of money and Fed montrous subsidies of 2 cents per kilowatthour (nuclear plants can produce power for less than that!!!)