The world's largest wind power project will begin construction this month near Beijing, bringing green energy and cleaner air to the 2008 Summer Olympics and city residents coping with some of the worst air pollution in the world.
The new wind power plant, located 60 miles outside Beijing in Guangting, will generate 400 megawatts when at full capacity, nearly doubling the electrical energy China currently obtains from wind. But that's just the beginning. Last summer at a climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, China surprised many by announcing it will generate 12 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wind by 2020.
Pollution is part of the driving force behind China's newfound passion for green energy, said Yu Jie of Greenpeace China's office in Beijing. "Acid rain blankets 70 percent of the country," Jie said, cutting crop yields, damaging trees and making rivers and lakes too acidic to support fish.
The country's galloping economic growth over the past 20 years has meant enormous increases in electrical power demands, 75 percent of which come from coal. China is the world's largest coal-consuming country and home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities on the planet, according to the World Bank. At least 400,000 people in China die each year from air-pollution-related illnesses, the World Bank reports.
Pollution is not China's only energy problem. It is also plagued by frequent and widespread power failures because its generating capacity cannot keep pace with industrial and consumer demands. The country leads the world in purchases of TV sets and other appliances.
While China has low-quality coal in abundance, its transportation infrastructure cannot ship enough coal from the mines in the west to the cities in the east, said Jie. Electrical energy self-sufficiency is a crucial goal for the Chinese leadership, especially as oil imports soar to provide gasoline for the 14,000 new motor vehicles being added to its streets every day.
These factors have pushed China to invite Western energy experts, including environmental groups like Greenpeace and the National Resources Defense Council, to help China become more energy-efficient and figure out how to produce 20,000 megawatts from wind by 2020.
A megawatt is a million watts, sufficient power to light 10,000 100-watt bulbs, or enough daily electricity for 600 to 1,000 households, depending on energy use. Germany currently leads the world, generating 12,000 megawatts from wind, with the United States well behind at 5,000 megawatts.
China is looking to Germany and Denmark to supply the technology and the policy models upon which to base a new renewable-energy law, said Jie. "This is the first time China has asked outsiders to comment on a proposed law."
"China's wind power potential is huge -- 500,000, perhaps 600,000 megawatts -- but it needs the proper legal framework," said Corin Millais, executive director of the Brussels-based European Wind Energy Association. The association has contributed input on the Chinese renewable-energy law.
China has a complex mix of state, local and private energy generators, with multiple levels of subsidies and often conflicting regulations. "Changes in state and federal laws are needed, along with clear rules about who sets the price and who owns the wind power farms; otherwise the wind-energy boom won't happen," said Millais.
The Chinese want to pursue private-public partnerships with European companies, but because up to 80 percent of the total cost of a wind farm is building it, companies need a reliable price structure for the power they sell, he said.
The new law is expected to be in place by next summer, and if it has the right ingredients, the Chinese landscape will soon blossom with fields of 2- and 3-megawatt wind turbines.
Another reason China is looking to wind is because it is now as cheap as coal, said Kyle Datta, managing director at Colorado's Rocky Mountain Institute, a leading independent energy research center. And if the health costs associated with coal burning are considered, wind is actually a lot cheaper, said Datta, who researched the Chinese energy market while co-authoring a book, Winning the Oil Endgame: American Innovation for Profits, Jobs and Security.
"People in Chinese cities would also prefer it (wind energy) to all those diesel generators they needed last summer just to keep the lights on some of the time," Datta said. Solving China's pollution problems while meeting its energy needs will be difficult and will require a mix of power-generation technologies, including biomass, solar and hydro, he added.
Although China has little interest in nuclear power because of its high cost and security concerns, a few more nuclear plants will also be built, Datta said.
China is also turning the current problem into an opportunity. By using its low-cost manufacturing ability, it will soon be a major supplier of power-generation equipment. "China already produces solar cells much cheaper than elsewhere," Datta said.
"It's a country that's remarkably open to new ideas."