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China's wind power generation blows away all other nations, including the US.

Clean Power

China’s Wind Power Blows Strong

China’s wind power generation blows away all other nations, including the US.

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According to the online People’s Daily of August 3rd, 2011, electricity-generating windmills are leading China’s effort to harness natural resources and improve its green credentials. It has already taken the lead from the United States, with 44.7 gigawatts in 2011 (a gigawatt is 1 billion Watts, or 1,000,000 Kilowatts). By 2015, the capacity is scheduled to be 100 million kilowatts. Of course, one of the reasons for such rapid growth is the government edict that directs power companies to buy all the power the wind farms produce.

Over 35,000 windmills, their slender towers topped by slowly rotating blades, now grace the Chinese countryside and coastline. They are popular subjects to shoot and are popular on websites for photographers. Most of China’s windmills are domestic adaptations and improvements of European and American designs. China boasts that its windmill companies are among the world’s top 10, and is actively marketing them in Africa and other parts of the world. Chinese windmills now grace the West Texas countryside as well.

The market for windmills, blades, and parts is so great in China that several European manufacturers such as Vestas and LM of Denmark, Gamesa of Spain, and Suzion of India have set up shop in the Tianjin Economic-Technology Development Center near Beijing. General Electric windmills have been turning in the North West Province since 2007.

The wind power theoretically available to China is upwards of 3 Billion Kilowatts, mainly due to China’s size and proximity to the Himalayas and the ocean. It would be nice for them if the wind velocity was between 3 and 25 M/sec. (meters per second), the ideal range of wind energy for power generation. Below 3, the blades don’t turn fast enough, above 25 they turn too fast and require brakes or ‘feathering’ to reduce the amount of exposed blade surface. Higher wind speeds put stresses on the tower structures requiring more expensive construction. High wind velocity is what they have in spades, however, with up to 200 M/sec. over large expanses of the northern foothills and western desert plains — it seems the weather doesn’t comply with Beijing’s edicts. But new wind technologies may eventually make that fast wind more useful.

The problems of harnessing wind power are universal and it is estimated that at least 10% of the power is lost during distribution. Windmill farms take up a lot of ground, about 60 to 80 acres per MW, which is hard to find in urban areas that need the power the most, so the farms are usually a long way from the intended market, requiring expensive pylons and power-sucking wires (of course, no one wants dirty coal or risky nuclear power in their city, which creates similar problems for those electricity options). Also, the system for managing and distributing the generated power, the electrical grid, cannot stand anything unpredictable at this point — it is build for older, different technologies. It is hard enough to balance demand that changes hour-by-hour with power stations that run continually, never mind input levels that change with the wind.

Comparing China’s wind power with that in the US is a lesson in similarities and differences. The similarities are both geographic and technical. North America and China have vast wind-swept mountains and plains, little space for wind farms near the heavy demand areas, and creaking electrical grids subject to brownouts. The differences are governmental, political and economic. Wind energy growth in the US is subject to government and community support or neglect; applying or withdrawing subsidies, approval or denial of construction permits, and environmental impact statements. The reason for the US losing ground to China was the indecision of Congress regarding subsidies it long ago gave fossil fuels (and the powerful fossil fuel industry doesn’t want others to get). In China, it is far simpler. They just follow the ‘Five Year Plan’ — they are on their eleventh!

Photo Credit: Erikogan

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