Wind power could cut China’s emissions and could meet its entire future energy needs

With ambitious government policies and a new breed of entrepreneurs, Chinese businesses are among the top producers of electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels and energy efficient appliances, the report found.

Last year, the downturn hurt China’s exports of renewable and low-carbon technologies and provided new impetus for expanding its domestic markets.

The Chinese government’s 4-trillion-yuan (US$ 585 billion) stimulus package puts strong emphasis on clean development and is backed by many new regulations and policies focused on increasing the uptake of low carbon technologies.

Low carbon electric vehicles, energy efficiency in industry, renewable energy and low carbon buildings and urban design are the four key areas of China’s low carbon economy. And, each of the four areas witnessed solid progress, the report found.

With car sales in China surpassing that in the US for the first time in January 2009, the country is now both the world’s largest auto market and the third largest producer, but most vehicles are still powered by gasoline and diesel.

Rapid demand growth creates an urgent imperative to accelerate the development of electric vehicles (EVs) and other forms of low carbon transport. Thirteen Chinese cities have signed up to a government scheme to purchase a total of 13,000 EVs this year. China aim’s to manufacture half a million EVs in 2011.

The energy intensity of the Chinese economy has already fallen by over 60 percent since 1980, and the government has set a goal of reducing it by a further 20 percent between 2005 and 2010. Although fossil fuels, notably coal, still provide the bulk of China’s power, an aggressive push is underway to replace inefficient power stations with efficient super-critical technology. China is already one of the world’s largest users of supercritical and ultra-supercritical generation technology, with 150 of these units already in operation.

Government policies including fiscal incentives and credit support are helping to shape an energy-saving market that could already be worth 800 billion yuan and which is expected to grow substantially over the next decade, the report estimated.

China has also raised its mid- and long-term targets for renewable energy, to meet the rapid development of the green industries.

By 2020, new energy is expected to constitute 17 percent of the country’s power supply. Of this, 150 million from wind, and 20 million from solar power.

The growth of installed wind turbines in China is faster than anywhere else, with wind power generation capacity topping 12,000 MW in 2008 – a figure that is doubling each year. China is also the world’s largest producer and consumer of solar water heaters, accounting for 65 percent of installations; and, 95 percent of core technology patents on solar water heaters were developed by Chinese companies. Penetration of photovoltaic (PV) solar power has also shown rapid growth, as have geothermal energy.

The government has also set ambitious energy conservation targets for new buildings, promoting low carbon building materials and renewable energy, especially solar.

Many successful low carbon buildings, for residential, commercial and public use have been completed, with several entire ‘eco-cities’ in advanced stages of planning. The government has also announced a large-scale promotion project for energy efficient lighting, with the aim of distributing 100 million subsidized bulbs in 2009.

The report also pointed out the barriers for China to realize its low carbon economy. China is struggling hard to catch up with international peers and to move from lower-end to higher-end technology, but gaps still exist.

Creative, market-based financing mechanisms are also required. It is estimated that China will need to invest 1.8 trillion yuan every year to meet its energy conservation and emissions reduction goals.

"It’s a 70-30 situation. We have 70 percent of the solutions today, but they are not all proven technologies and none are of the scale we need. Thirty percent of the solutions will be found in the future. Therefore we still need foreign investment to drive the revolution." Said Wu Changhua, Greater China Director at The Climate Group.

As both a major emitter and provider of solutions to climate change, China’s role at the heart of the international climate negotiations is essential to their success and their ability to accelerate the transition to a prosperous low carbon global economy.

Areas rich in wind power resources are mainly concentrated in the remote northwest, northeast and southeast, where the power transmission network is poorly constructed.

But the scale of renewable energies is over-expanding in some areas despite the lack of necessary infrastructure to collect the electricity.

More than 20 percent of the country’s wind power machines did not generate any electricity last year because the equipment was not yet connected to the grid, according to officials from the China Wind Energy Association.

Zhang Yue, chairman of Broad Air Conditioning, also said that the investors should pour the money into real "green" sectors. "We need to decide what are the real low-carbon products, the assessment should be based on the whole life cycle," he said.

Wind power could cut China’s emissions by 30 pct and could meet its entire future energy needs by wind alone

Study suggests that wind is economically practical and could reduce CO2 emissions. A team of environmental scientists from Harvard and Tsinghua University demonstrated the enormous potential for wind energy.

Using extensive metrological data and incorporating the Chinese government’s energy bidding and financial restrictions for delivering wind power, the researchers estimate that wind alone has the potential to meet the country’s electricity demands projected for 2030.

The switch from coal and other fossil fuels to greener wind energy could also mitigate CO2 emissions, thereby reducing pollution. The report appeared as a cover story in the September 11th issue of Science.

"The world is struggling with the question of how do you make the switch from carbon-rich fuels to something carbon-free," said lead author Michael B. McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

China has become second only to the U.S. in its national power generating capacity— 792.5 gigawatts per year with an expected future 10 percent annual increase—and is now the world’s largest CO2 emitter. Thus, added McElroy, "the real question for the globe is: What alternatives does China have?"

While wind-generated energy accounts for only 0.4 percent of China’s total current electricity supply, the country is rapidly becoming the world’s fastest growing market for wind power, trailing only the U.S., Germany, and Spain in terms of installed capacities of existing wind farms.

Development of renewable energy in China, especially wind, received an important boost with passage of the Renewable Energy Law in 2005; the law provides favorable tax status for alternative energy investments. The Chinese government also established a concession bidding process to guarantee a reasonable return for large wind projects.

"To determine the viability of wind-based energy for China we established a location-based economic model, incorporating the bidding process, and calculated the energy cost based on geography," said co-author Xi Lu, a graduate student in McElroy’s group at SEAS. "Using the same model we also evaluated the total potentials for wind energy that could be realized at a certain cost level."

Specifically, the researchers used meteorological data from the Goddard Earth Observing Data Assimilation System (GEOS) at NASA. Further, they assumed the wind energy would be produced from a set of land-based 1.5-megawatt turbines operating over non-forested, ice-free, rural areas with a slope no more than 20 percent.

"By bringing the capabilities of atmospheric science to the study of energy we were able to view the wind resource in a total context," explained co-author Chris P. Nielsen, Executive Director of the Harvard China Project, based at SEAS.

The analysis indicated that a network of wind turbines operating at as little as 20 percent of their rated capacity could provide potentially as much as 24.7 petawatt-hours of electricity annually, or more than seven times China’s current consumption. The researchers also determined that wind energy alone, at around 7.6 U.S. Cents per kilowatt-hour, could accommodate the country’s entire demand for electricity projected for 2030.

"Wind farms would only need to take up land areas of 0.5 million square kilometers, or regions about three quarters of the size of Texas. The physical footprints of wind turbines would be even smaller, allowing the areas to remain agricultural," said Lu.

By contrast, to meet the increased demand for electricity during the next 20 years using fossil fuel-based energy sources, China would have to construct coal-fired power plants that could produce the equivalent of 800 gigawatts of electricity, resulting in a potential increase of 3.5 gigatons of CO2 per year. The use of cleaner wind energy could both meet future demands and, even if only used to supplement existing energy sources, significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Moving to a low-carbon energy future would require China to make an investment of around $900 billion dollars (at current prices) over the same twenty-year period. The scientists consider this a large but not unreasonable investment given the present size of the Chinese economy. Moreover, whatever the energy source, the country will need to build and support an expanded energy grid to accommodate the anticipated growth in power demand.

"We are trying to cut into the current defined demand for new electricity generation in China, which is roughly a gigawatt a week—or an enormous 50 gigawatts per year," said McElroy. "China is bringing on several coal fire power plants a week. By publicizing the opportunity for a different way to go we will hope to have a positive influence."

In the coming months, the researchers plan to conduct a more intensive wind study in China, taking advantage of 25-year data with significantly higher spatial resolution for north Asian regions to investigate the geographical year-to-year variations of wind. The model used for assessing China could also be applied for assessing wind potential anywhere in the world, onshore and offshore, and could be extended to solar generated electricity.

Yuxuan Wang, Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, also contributed to the study. The team’s research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).


Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity in China
Michael B. McElroy,1,*,{dagger} Xi Lu,2,* Chris P. Nielsen,3 Yuxuan Wang4

Wind offers an important alternative to coal as a source of energy for generation of electricity in China with the potential for substantial savings in carbon dioxide emissions. Wind fields derived from assimilated meteorological data are used to assess the potential for wind-generated electricity in China subject to the existing government-approved bidding process for new wind farms. Assuming a guaranteed price of 0.516 RMB (7.6 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour for delivery of electricity to the grid over an agreed initial average period of 10 years, it is concluded that wind could accommodate all of the demand for electricity projected for 2030, about twice current consumption. Electricity available at a concession price as low as 0.4 RMB per kilowatt-hour would be sufficient to displace 23% of electricity generated from coal.

1 School of Engineering and Applied Science and Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
2 School of Engineering and Applied Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
3 Harvard China Project and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
4 Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.

* These authors contributed equally to this work.