Wind energy helps clean China’s air

Beijing’s notorious smog has eased slightly this year. Azure blue skies with cotton-white clouds prompted locals to take out their mobile phones and cameras to record scenes they feared would soon vanish into history again.

The atmosphere is described as both “APEC blue” and “parade blue”. Beijingers witnessed similar clear skies when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings convened in their city in November 2014 and a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the victory of Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the world’s anti-Fascist war was held here in September 2015.

Back then, the fresh air was achieved with stern government decrees to curb the operations of polluting enterprises and to reduce the number of motor vehicles on roads before and during the events. The wind did the rest. But such provisional measures are unsustainable.

This year saw stronger winds to blow the smog away, but the winds were also harnessed to generate an alternative clean source of electricity, replacing and reducing the use of fossil fuels.

The use of fossil-fuelled energies is the major culprit in smog. Research by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found fossil fuels contribute almost 70 percent of the pollutants that cause the extraordinarily high ratio of PM2.5 (particulate matter that is two and a half microns or less in width) in the air, which becomes smog.

PM2.5 is a health hazard. In the last three decades, the number of lung cancer cases in China has quadrupled. “This might be to do with the increase in smoggy days, as the country’s smoking rate declined in the same period,” Dr. Zhong Nanshan, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a national hero in the battle against the 2003 SARS epidemic, said at a public forum.

Wind power is a clean renewable energy. But its large-scale exploitation was only made possible in the last century. The installation of three Denmark-made 55-kw wind turbines in Rongcheng, Shandong Province,in 1986 inaugurated the era of grid-connected wind power generation in China. However, progress was slow in the following two decades.

Wind power developments accelerated in an astonishing manner in the new millennium. From 2006 to 2010, China’s new wind installations doubled almost every year. Statistics from the Chinese Wind Energy Association show the country ranked top globally in new installations in 2009. The next year, China ranked first in total installed wind capacity, a position it still retains.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, China built 23.2 gw of new wind capacity in 2014, accounting for about 45 percent of the world total that year. China’s total wind installations reached 114.61 gw. The United States followed with 65.88 gw; Germany with 39.17 gw; Spain with 22.99 gw and India with 22.47 gw.

Wind power is expected to play a bigger role as an alternative source of energy. Wind power generation has no greenhouse gas emissions. It is a major contributor to China’s response to global climate change.

In the national Energy Development Strategic Action Plan (2014-2020) published in June 2014, the central government pledged to raise the proportion of non-fossil-fueled power in total primary energy consumption from less than 11.4 percent then to 15 percent by 2020. The ratio will rise to 20 percent by 2030. The ratio of wind power in total electricity production will rise from 2.78 percent at the end of 2014 to 5 percent by 2020.

China’s goal of installing 100 gw of wind capacity by 2015 was reached ahead of time. The longer term goals are 200 gw by 2020, 400 gw by 2030 and 1,000 gw by 2050. In the final year of this grand plan, wind power is to meet 17 percent of domestic electricity demand. And it will avert emissions of 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that year.

Last year when the smog lingered, some people blamed the multitude of wind turbines erected in areas north of Beijing for obstructing the wind. This frustrated many wind power insiders and was dismissed by experts as unfounded. The experts proved right this year when the same amount or more of wind installations did not prevent the strong winds.

If wind blows smog away, the dirty air with a high degree of PM2.5 is dispersed or simply driven to other places. Through reducing emissions of pollutants, wind power is a more fundamental way of cleaning the air.

But it is too early to say the battle against air pollution is succeeding. More work needs to be done in developing alternative energy before we can have a better chance of seeing azure blue skies with cotton-white clouds in future.