China is rapidly building a world-beating wind energy revolution

An army of sea giants is emerging along China’s coastline. Mysterious and magnificent, they rise up from the waves, limbs outstretched, gently whirring in the breeze. From north of Shanghai down to Hong Kong, across a thousand-mile stretch of water, hundreds of these otherworldly creations will one day be able to provide enough energy to power millions of homes and businesses.

With the pandemic and the climate crisis still raging, China has been steadily building up its wind warms over land and sea. Despite Covid-19 grinding much of the world to a halt, China’s drive to conquer the global renewable energy market continues apace: it’s constructing more offshore wind capacity than the rest of the world combined.

Since reaching the one-gigawatt milestone in 2017 (enough energy to power 100 million LED home light bulbs), progress has been rampant. China is now the world’s leader in new offshore wind installations. By 2030, it’s expected to reach a 52-gigawatt capacity. “Amid climate change, the big drive was the government wanting to develop a new industry, create jobs and economic growth while reducing coal production,” says Feng Zhao, strategy director at the Global Wind Energy Council.

And construction hasn’t always been focused on the South China Sea. On the fringes of the Gobi Desert, near the Mongolian border, where the winds howl through the sparsely populated lowlands, sits the Jiuquan Wind Power Base. Building started in 2009, but the largest wind farm on the planet remains unfinished. Some turbines have even been switched off due to low demand.

While the desert winds will forever blow a gale, the surrounding rural villages aren’t necessarily in need of that much turbine-produced electricity. Meanwhile, Beijing and China’s economic centre sits at least a 20-hour drive away. “The onshore wind resource is fantastic, but only a fraction of gigawatts has been installed,” Zhao explains. The government has tried to build transmission cables to cover the thousand-mile-plus distance, with limited success. “In some regions, more than 20 per cent of electricity produced by turbines has gone uncollected – that’s a huge waste.”

Hence the pivot to offshore wind in 2015. According to Zhao, alongside the humongous gigawatt numbers, the transition has been a success. “Offshore is easy to transmit, the wind along the east coast and the industrial cities is well populated, it’s easy for energy consumption. The economy there is larger, meaning there is more money to be made. And you don’t need to build long electricity cables.”

But despite the huge drive into offshore wind farming, the largest market isn’t China – it’s the UK. The UK, with 10.4 gigawatts of installed capacity, three more than Germany and China, still leads the way. Dale Vince, owner of green electricity company Ecotricity, brands Britain the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy.” It’s certainly draughty enough: our wind-battered isles receive 40 per cent of all of Europe’s gusts, with 20 per cent of the country’s entire electricity needs per year generated by wind. “It’s the leading source of renewable energy because it matured first – it’s been around much longer than solar power,” Vince explains. “And most people like it: wind energy is simple, clean and safe.”

From the late 1990s, under the early Blair government, turbines began cropping up all over the country – Vince’s first windmill was built in his native Cotswolds in 1996. But onshore wind farms were effectively banned by then prime minister David Cameron in 2016, when they were excluded from the government’s system of subsidies for low-carbon electricity. Politics, however, has helped create an offshore boom. “Its success has driven the price down incredibly – it’s nearly on a par with onshore,” Vince says. “It’s a madness given how difficult an environment it is to construct in, but the turbines have become so big and built on such a scale that there’s a proper economy of scale.”

There also tends to be less of a resistance to offshore wind farms. In Scotland, construction onshore has mostly continued undisrupted: without subsidies it’s still a cost-effective exercise thanks to an abundance of gale-force winds. But from the Shetlands down to the Highlands and Borders, residents are rallying against turbines in the surrounding countryside. Complaints range from their noise; to their impact on the local landscape and wildlife; to plummeting property prices, trapping them in homes no one will buy.

Aileen Jackson, of campaign group Scotland Against Spin, lives under the shadow of a wind farm in East Renfrewshire, on the outskirts of Glasgow. She explains that her home is surrounded on all sides from turbines up to 110 metres tall. “We used to have glorious, unspoilt countryside which is now full of constantly moving vertical structures. It’s not always the volume of noise which is disturbing, but its character: like aircraft constantly circling overhead.”

Others are campaigning against planned sites. “Shetland is facing becoming one of the largest industrial onshore wind farms in Europe, despite being one of the smallest communities,” argues local resident Christine Hughson. “It’s an industrial project in one of the remotest, wildest, undisturbed islands around. Building work has already decimated the land and has only just begun,” she argues. Building wind farms offshore sidesteps some of the challenges posed by reworking beloved rural landscapes.

In March the government announced that onshore wind farms can compete for clean power contracts from next year, paving the way for another onshore boom. Luke Clark, of RenewableUK, cites a recent independent opinion poll with only six per cent opposing onshore wind. He adds that the industry works closely with conservation groups, and that developers collaborate with local communities and planning authorities. “Wind farms bring massive economic benefits to local communities by attracting billion-pound investments and creating local jobs: 13,300 work in the UK’s onshore industry.”

Despite some fervent opposition, a deadly pandemic and a global recession, the long blades of wind energy show no sign of slowing. If anything, it’s proven the industry’s robustness. As the world grappled with coronavirus, another two-and-a-half gigawatts of offshore wind power was installed in the first half of the year. Ten new farms went into operation too, across Europe, the US, the UK and China.

On-or-off-shore, China now boasts more than 135,000 turbines, generating more than 235 gigawatts of electricity per year. It’s also the world’s biggest exporter of solar panels. But wasn’t China meant to be the scourge of the climate crisis? The biggest producer of carbon emissions on the planet? Although coal-fired power plants remain the backbone of the Chinese economy, there are signs that they’re slowly making way for renewables.

Zhao pinpoints the Communist Party’s 12th Five-Year plan, beginning in 2011, as a turning point. “There was a big effort to tackle climate change. As a local, I’ve read much criticism of the government. But without its support, there’d be no way of meeting renewable targets. What it’s doing is much better than Donald Trump.” He adds that China’s size and 1.4 billion-strong population means that a huge volume of renewable energy is being generated – albeit with plenty of carbon dioxide still being pumped into the atmosphere.

China is targeting half of all its energy to come from renewable sources by 2050 – the same year the UK aims to be carbon neutral. Wind will be core to either happening. “I like what China is doing,” Vince says. “There’s hypocrisy coming from the developed world about its power stations – we’ve been through that stage. You have to balance criticism of its coal habits with the rate at which it’s turned to renewables. Without China, we wouldn’t have the successful solar and renewables industry of today.”

By next year, China’s offshore wind sector is set to overtake the UK market. Where does that leave Britain’s wind energy industry? In a very good place, according to Zhao. “A European-only business will mean limited growth. If it goes to Asia, North America and even Africa, it grows the pie. Technology can be transferred, innovation spreads across the globe. It’s a big opportunity, and it’s good for the planet.”

Dale Vince, owner of Ecotricity, will be one of the speakers at WIRED Smarter. The virtual event, which runs from October 13 to 15, explores the ways senior business leaders can turn disruption into a strategy.