China?s path to wind energy superpower

Wind power in China is growing at a blinding pace. China commenced construction of its first wind turbines in 2005 and in just six years has installed 58 GW worth of wind farm, which now contributes 128TWh to its grid. This is enough renewable electricity to power Australia’s most populous states, NSW and Victoria combined.

What’s remarkable about China’s wind sector is the speed and scale of its expansion. Wind generators are up and operating within nine months of breaking ground. This has resulted in the dramatic upward revision of the country’s wind deployment targets. Three years ago China’s 2020 target was set at 30GW, today it’s a massive 200GW.

Last month, the National Development Reform Commission Energy Research Institute released China’s first wind development plan to 2050. A whopping 1000GW – enough to provide 17 per cent of China’s electricity needs – will be built and operating by mid Century.

Given China’s track record of smashing its own deployment targets – such as the revising upwards seven fold increase in their 2020 target in just three years – it is a near fait accompli that in 2050, China could have in excess of 3000GW of wind power operating, providing half of the country’s electricity demand.

Nuclear power, on the other hand, is a tale of decline.

China’s wind sector overshadows the 11GW worth of nuclear in their electricity supply. In only six years, wind has blossomed to deliver 55 per cent more electricity grid each year than nuclear – an energy source the Chinese have been building for the 26 years.

The growth of nuclear in China, although slow, has slowed further since the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. The Chinese have downgraded the country’s forecast for nuclear power’s contribution to the electricity supply. The original 2020 target of 86GW has been abandoned in favour of a modest 40-60GW.

Government concerns about the safety of existing nuclear reactors is now the key factor in slowing the expansion of nuclear power. Chinese Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian concedes, “Safety standards of China’s early-phase nuclear facilities are relatively low, operation times are long, some facilities are obsolete and the safety risks are increasing.” Worryingly this prognosis includes a plant owned China Light & Power, the parent of Australian company TRUenergy, which hopes to list on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2012.

Cheap Chinese nuclear relied on outdated second-generation designs that could be built with more than 70 percent local content. China won’t be rushing to build third-generation plants when over 80 percent imported content. Then there’s the fact no third generation plant has been built and completed anywhere worldwide.

In China, and globally, wind power will stay well ahead of nuclear for decades and replace it altogether.

So, what implications will the dramatic shift in China’s energy mix have for Australia?

China’s massive deployments will be driving renewables down the cost curve, so Australia can invest in wind today with certainty the technology is a wise long-term investment.

These cost reductions will make Australia’s inevitable transition to a 100 percent renewable energy much cheaper. It will certainly be cheaper than what was estimated in the award winning Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy plan published by energy think tank Beyond Zero Emissions and the University of Melbourne Energy Institute last year.

Australia’s balance of trade is another consideration. Chinese demand for Australia’s coal exports will soften with their renewable energy build up. We can’t simply depend on balancing trade with dirty commodity exports such as coal and gas and must concentrate on a diversified economy rather than one at risk of a terrible case of Dutch disease.

Ramping up renewable energy deployment is the only way for Australian firms to learn through doing to create niche products to compete with cheap Chinese and leading German technology. Without an immediate rollout of renewables there is no way for us to secure the lucrative economic opportunities associated with our intellectual capital and world-class engineering capabilities.

For years, status quoists used China as an excuse for why Australia shouldn’t invest in renewables. An unsustainable excuse as China is reinforcing her ambitious renewable energy program with a fossil fuel all-energy cap.

Supporting renewables is an economy-wide primary energy limit of 120,000 petajoules (4.1 billion tones of coal equivalent), China’s carbon emissions will flatline from 2015. The cap is seven-times Australia’s current primary energy production (17,055 petajoules), which is extraordinary for a nation 60 times our population.

Australia must wake up. The Asian giant China provides the perfect rationale, and now even a model, for leadership for rolling out renewables and decarbonising our economy.

Matthew Wright is executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions and 2010-11 Young Environmentalist of the Year