Wind energy makers in China captivated by offshore wind power potentials

At the Offshore Wind China 2011, Asia’s largest annual offshore wind industrial gathering held from June 15 to 17 in Shanghai, Guodian United Power, China’s fourth largest wind turbine maker, announced it would roll out a six-mw prototype for offshore wind farms by the end of the year and would develop 12-mw turbines next year.

Shanghai Electric, the seventh largest turbine maker, said it would produce a five-mw offshore turbine late this year or early next year.

Goldwind, China’s second largest turbine maker, said it would produce a six-mw prototype late this year or early next year, and produce six-mw turbines in bulk in 2014.

The wind power branch of China Shipping Industry Corporation, based in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, the 11th largest turbine maker, also edged into the tangled competition, saying it would produce a five-mw prototype in October.

Prior to this, last October, Sinovel, China’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, took the lead to produce the country’s first doubly-fed five-mw wind turbine. This turbine will be installed in a pilot offshore wind farm in Shanghai in August.

In May, Sinovel produced China’s first six-mw wind turbine, and it has now set its sights on developing ten-mw turbines.

Last October, a few days after Sinovel, Xiangtan Electric Machinery(XEMC), based in central Hunan province, produced China’s first five-mw direct-drive permanent magnetic offshore wind turbine. By the end of June, XEMC will install a prototype wind farm in the Netherlands and in China’s southeastern Fujian Province, respectively.

The great mass fervor of leading Chinese wind turbine makers in producing large-capacity offshore wind turbines shows, as industry officials have put it, that China has stepped into the transition period toward developing offshore wind power with five-mw and six-mw turbines. To date, China’s land-based wind farms largely use 1.5 MW wind turbines.

Compared with the surging expansion of land-based wind power, China has only begun to tap offshore wind power, industry officials said.

So far, China has installed only 142.5 mw offshore wind turbines, less than one percent of China’s cumulative wind-installed capacity and about one-thirtieth of the global offshore wind installed capacity.

However, China is widely seen as the most promising offshore wind power developer outside Europe before 2020. The next five years will witness the swift expansion of Chinese offshore wind farms, according to China’s 12th Five-year Plan (2011-2015).

China boasts rich offshore wind power resources. According to the China Meteorological Administration, China has about 200 gw of offshore wind resources in sea areas five to 25 meters deep when turbines are erected 50 meters above sea level.

China’s offshore wind farms are based along the east coast where the country’s economic powerhouses reside, so that makes it easier for users to access.

Shi Lishan, deputy director of the new energy and renewable energy department of National Energy Bureau (NEB), said offshore wind power development will be a priority of China’s wind-power industry.

To facilitate the development, NEB and other central government departments are drafting detailed provisions governing offshore wind power development on the basis of an interim measure promulgated in 2010.

As a result of five years of three-digit annual growth, energy companies have carved up areas with favorable conditions for onshore wind power development. The top five state-owned power companies, along with local energy investors, have invested heavily for early stage offshore wind exploration.

Industry insiders said NEB is considering launching its second public tender for offshore wind power concession projects in the first half of next year. It will be two gw to double the size of the first public tender, which was completed last year in eastern Jiangsu Province.

Yi Yuechun, deputy chief engineer of China Hydropower Planning and Designing Institute, said these pilot offshore wind farms will raise large demands for offshore wind turbines and subsequently promote astounding advances of the Chinese wind turbine manufacturing sector.

According to the 12th Five-year Plan, China will have five gw of offshore wind installed capacity by 2015. Industry officials estimate China will have 30 gw of offshore wind installed capacity by 2020.

Tao Gang, vice president of Sinovel, said this means China will need about 6,000 units of five-MW wind turbines by 2020 — a lucrative business opportunity.

Despite the attractive business opportunities, industry insiders question if wind-turbine makers will be able to supply so many quality offshore wind turbines, since offshore wind farms are more complicated constructions than land-based wind farms.

By the end of 2010, China replaced the United States as the world’s largest in installed wind farm capacity, totaling 44.7 GW.

However, such rapid advances have exposed hidden problems in China’s wind power development, as the country has witnessed three large-scale breakdowns that disconnected hundreds of wind turbines from the grid so far this year.

Meng Lingbin, deputy general manager of Datang Renewables, a leading wind farm operator, said, "It will take about 10 minutes to have a minor turbine fault rectified on land, but for offshore wind farms, it might take weeks to repair a minor fault if under stormy conditions."

Zhou Fengqi, vice chairman of China Energy Association, said it costs several million yuan to hoist an offshore wind turbine for simple maintenance, not to mention big incidents.

In the view of Xie Changjun, general manager of Longyuan Power, China’s largest wind farm operator, China’s objective of developing five gw of offshore wind power by 2015 is proper.

Xie said the blowout-style development of China’s onshore wind farm development is unfit for offshore wind power exploration, so China shouldn’t develop offshore wind power by leaps and bounds.

Xie said he had not found out any offshore wind turbines in the country to satisfy him.

To seek wind turbines that meet his standards, Xie has set up a pilot inter-tidal wind farm in Rudong, Jiangsu Province, to test 16 turbines from eight manufacturers.

Xie said the strategy would be to gradually tap offshore wind power, and large-scale offshore wind energy development might start in his company after 2015.

Ole Hermansen, director of the offshore wind power division of Siemens (China), said the biggest difference between China and Europe in wind power development is the construction speed. In Europe, an offshore wind farm is developed in five to six years, but it’s a totally different story in China, Hermansen said. As he sees it, Europe develops too slowly, while China advances too fast. He prefers a middle course.

Despite the technological threshold in offshore turbine development, leading Chinese wind turbine makers remain eager to go into the business.

"Our policy is to pay close attention and advance steadily in offshore turbine production," said Sun Lixiang, deputy general manager of Guodian United Power.

Goldwind also said it would be cautious rather than advancing rashly in offshore turbine development.

Wu Gang, Goldwind’s chairman, said high credibility of wind turbines depends on mature research and development and continual testing, and premature advance will only bring heavy losses, which wastes precious resources.

However, business insiders said it is unnecessary to take offshore wind power as something mystical under the premise of cautious progress.

Tao said the domestic turbine manufacturing sector is advancing healthily and steadily. "About six years ago, when we started to develop mw-level turbines, we were told China could not produce such machines."

He went on to say that although they lacked a supporting production chain, they persevered through joint efforts with component suppliers and developed high-quality MW-level wind turbines.