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 Mines
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 People.com.cn, 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 Dam
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.
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 Dam
A Different Breed of Pollution
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.
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
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.
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 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