The Dabancheng wind farm in China's Xinjiang province is just one of China's many massive wind projects. China is focusing on bigger turbines for more economical yields.  (Source: Bob Sacha/Corbis)
Red China is seeing green and quickly assuming a role as a world class wind power

The U.S. has invested heavily in developing wind power.  From nation-leading massive wind farms on the dusty plains of Texas to towering windmills being built in a cutting-edge wind park off the shores of Delaware, the U.S. has established itself as a wind superpower.

Only Germany, and thus by proxy the EU, has more wind power capacity than the U.S. However, the U.S.'s chief economic rival, China, is crafting plans to rapidly scale its own adoption to levels never before seen in the world.

In windy Dabancheng, an area in western China dominated by the Himalayan Mountains and strong winds, turbines are being erected forming a massive wind conduit.  The area is fortunate to have one of the strongest on-land wind flows in the world.  Because of this and the strong interest to take advantage of it, it is projected that the area will become the largest wind producing sector in the world by next year.

Over the icy planes 118 massive 1.5 MW turbines spin majestically in the gale.  When the project started, it was a mere experiment intended to power the town of Urumqi.  Now it is expanding its capacity to ship electricity elsewhere. 

And it's not the only wind rich region China is developing -- China also has facilities of equal sizes under construction in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Jiangsu.  This has resulted in torrid wind power growth of 100 percent a year in China since 2005.  China hopes that with the help of the rapid growth it can achieve its goal of getting 15 percent of its power from alternative energy source by 2020, doubling its alternative energy percentage in 2005.

Not even the government could predict the success of China's wind effort.  China's planners doubled their predictions for 2010 capacity, having reached the goal of 5 GW last year, three years early.  If current growth continues the prediction will again have to be doubled by 2010. 

Junfeng Li, secretary general of the China Renewable Energy Industries Association stated in a paper last month, "China is witnessing the start of a golden age of wind power development, and the magnitude of growth has caught even policymakers off guard.  It is widely believed that wind power will be able to compete with coal generation by as early as 2015. That will be the turning point in China, which by then will be the world's largest energy consumer."

Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council says that China is likely to install more new wind capacity than any other nation by 2010, including the U.S.  He also believes that by 2010 China may pass the U.S. as the world's largest turbine maker. 

He stated, "China's wind energy market is unrecognizable from two years ago, it is huge, huge. But it is not realized yet in the outside world.  A few years ago wind energy was boutique, something to show off to foreigners to prove how green they are but now it is a very serious part of their energy policy.  They can make things happen so quickly in China compared to the west. When they make up their minds, it is incredible how fast things happen."

Last year China reached 6 GW of capacity, with over 202 wind sites.  Azure International, a consultancy in Beijing reports that 445 more sites have been earmarked for development in the immediate future -- Chinese wind business can't keep up with the demand.  Back at Dabancheng, the current capacity is already 110 MW and the company operating the farm, Xijiang Tianfang Wind Power, plans to increase this another 50 MW by November.

The Chinese take great pride in their wind advances.  Li Yanjun, the duty operator at Dabancheng said, "We call it the Three Gorges of the sky. The hydroelectric dam there taps the water, here we tap the wind.  I've been here since the beginning. The turbines are like my children. It took 10 years to reach 64,000 kilowatt/hours because that period was the research phase, but now the government is committed to wind energy so we can grow quickly."

He continued, referring to the large turbines he operates, "This is the future in China.  Everyone is opting for big turbines. It is more economic to have one 1,500 kw turbine than two 750kw turbines and the maintenance costs are lower."

However, the plant is likely to be surpassed by a new facility in Jiuquan which plans to boast 3.8 GW of capacity by 2010.  It will link with other farms on China's expanded national grid. 

Still, the current capacity falls far short of China's coal power production, which supplies 70 percent of the state's power.  Also, one key problem is lack of competition with the wind power being controlled by five state-owned power generation utilities.  Still there are promising signs for China, such as the fact that the turbine industry in China -- typically dominated by foreign manufacturers like Vestas of Denmark, Gamesa of Spain and General Electric (GE) of the US -- saw 50 percent of its turbines domestically produced last year.

The biggest of these Chinese manufacturers is Goldwind, which is based in Urumqi.  It created the turbines for the Dabancheng project.  It creates 1.5 MW turbines competitive with foreign designs and is testing a massive industry leading 3 MW model currently.  It has seen amazing growth of 100 percent or more over each of the last 8 years.

A Goldwind executive, who asked to remain nameless, acknowledged much work remains.  He remarked, "There is still a gap between Chinese companies and western companies in terms of research and development because we started later.  Most of our technology comes from Germany. But in the first half of this year, we bought the company that taught us how to do things. That has solved the problem of research and development. Now we want to start selling overseas."

Goldwind sold turbines to Cuba and is hoping to soon sell to Pakistan, the Philippines and South Korea.  If all goes to plan, Goldwind and other providers may raise China's new capacity to 11 GW this year, with installation almost three times as much as last year. Sebastian Meyer, director of research and advisory at Azure International added, "It is probably going to be the most competitive turbine market in the world very quickly. Elsewhere, it is a seller's market. Now in China, we are on the tipping point of it becoming a buyers' market."

With coal costs rising and China being forced to import coal from Australia, wind is becoming increasingly competitive, however, it is still twice the cost per kilowatt hour as coal.  For that reason China will burn 2 billion tons of coal this year, a third of the total yearly world use.  Also wind capacity is still overshadowed by hydroelectric power, which provides more than 6 percent of the country's power.  Some predict that wind could surpass hydroelectric soon, with some boldly predicting that by 2020 wind will offer 122 GW of capacity, or roughly 10 percent of China's power.

China's rapid rise as a wind power parallels closely to its rise as a global economic force.  Its strong thirst for wind power seems to mark a clear signal that the technology has strong prospects.  Like most things with China, its wind progress represents a competitive challenge to the U.S., but also an opportunity.

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