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China looks to harness wind power

by Robert J. Saiget
Zhangbei, China (AFP) Jun 4, 2006
== With a steady wind blowing from the north, Yang Xuhua looks out at his wind turbines on the rolling plains of Zhangbei county and waxes optimistic over China's potential for clean energy.

"The blades on the wind mill over there will be 77 meters (254 feet) long, the biggest in China," Yang, deputy general manager of the Zhangbei Guotou Wind Power Plant in Hebei province, told AFP.

"We have abundant wind energy potential, if we can tap this in a big way it will reduce a lot of the bad pollution that comes from coal burning."

After repeated trips to Europe and the United States to inspect the latest wind technology, Yang speaks with the enthusiasm of an environmentalist who is riding the wave of the next big thing.

"More and more people in China are becoming convinced that we must make use of our wind resources because it is cheap to exploit, clean, renewable, abundant and does not cause global warming," Yang said.

"The problem for China right now is that we don't have the equipment to realize our goals."

According to Chinese studies, the nation has the potential to tap over one million megawatts of wind power resources, of which 250,000 megawatts are land based and the rest could be tapped in offshore wind farms.

Yet China only had 760 megawatts of installed wind power from 43 wind farms at the end of 2004, a fraction of one percent of total national electricity production.

Heavily polluting coal continues to account for over 70 percent of the nation's energy, a figure largely seen as simply unsustainable for a nation that is already one of the world's most environmentally degraded.

Amid such environmental woes, plants such as Yang's are being seen as vital green energy pioneers.

Zhangbei Guotou Wind Power Plant began installing its first batch of 30 General Electric wind turbines last year and will install another 60 built by the Spanish company Energia Hidroelectrica de Navarra, SA (EHN) in 2007.

By then the wind farm, which sits about 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Beijing, will have 144 megawatts of installed capacity.

The power will be pumped into the northern China grid, some of which will be used to help realize Beijing's pledge to use 20 percent renewable energy at the 2008 Olympic Games, Yang said.

Zhangjiakou prefecture, in which Yang's plant is located, is planning to have up to 1,000 wind turbines installed by 2010 on a series of new wind farms.

The prefecture has already invested 1.5 billion yuan (187 million dollars) in wind farms, with another 2.2 billion yuan's worth of construction under way, according to local officials.

The National Development and Reform Commission, the government's economic planning body, last year unveiled a plan to install 30,000 megawatts of wind power in China by 2020, a 33 percent increase over previously stated goals.

China's first target is 5,000 megawatts of wind power by 2010, with plans for a series of off-shore 1,000 megawatt plants that will each require up to 500 state-of-the-art, two megawatt wind turbines.

One of the main hurdles in developing the resource is Chinese regulations requiring a 70 percent local content in imported wind generators, although foreign investors are increasingly coming into the market.

General Electric of the United States last week signed an agreement to invest 50 million dollars in renewable energy research in China to supplement existing production facilities already making wind turbine components here.

So far General Electric has contracts amounting to 700 megawatts of wind energy in China, Jeffrey Immelt, GE's chief executive officer, told journalists in Beijing.

In June last year, Spain's ENH agreed to a 31-million-dollar joint venture plant to build wind turbines in the eastern city of Nantong.

A month later the Vestas Group of Denmark set up a 30-million-dollar plant in Tianjin to manufacture wind turbine blades for its newest two megawatt turbines while a plan for a turbine factory is in the works.

Yet China's wind power pioneers say this is not nearly enough.

"The problem for the growth in wind industry in China is that we cannot buy turbines fast enough," Liu Yuan, head of the energy division of Zhangjiakou's economic planning commission that oversees Zhangbei county, told AFP.

Another factor hampering wind power's growth in China is at present it costs slightly more than coal.

Yet Zhangjiakou prefecture again offers another glimpse of what the future could hold for China if a comprehensive green power strategy was pursued with vigour.

With strict regulations on cleaning coal and extracting sulphur from the fossil fuel in place due to its proximity to Beijing, the cost of wind power is already nearly equal to that of the cost of coal-fired electricity, Liu said.

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