Monday, August 10, 2015

Growing pains for China's wind industry

Watching China's economic development over the past 25-30 years has been easily one of the more fascinating stories going.  At least for me.  My godfather grew up in China as the son of a missionary doctor but was in a college in Minnesota when Mao won his revolution.  Perhaps this is why he never became a right-wing looney like Henry Luce and the rest of the China lobby that so distorted USA politics in the 1950s-60s.  He had fond memories of his childhood in China.  His father has chosen to practice medicine to the poor so his childhood China was spent among the lowest Producing classes.  Because his adult life was spent in places like rural Nepal, I didn't get to see him often but whenever he visited our home, he would talk about China "The Sleeping Giant." "Keep your eyes on China," he would say, "They will amaze you."

While my godfather thought Mao's Marxism was a tragic error, he always believed that China would someday right the ship because they had been organizing civilizations for thousands of years.  They had become weak because the Mandarin system was a hopelessly corrupt organization masquerading as a meritocracy.  So when the colonial powers came bringing bribes and opium, the hardworking poor just got added burdens to bear.  He didn't think that Mao really understood the grievances of the working classes even though he could spout Marx with the best of them. "Mao is just another corrupt rich kid."

So now we have seen Mao's communism being replaced with something that more resembles what the mandarins did.  It's authoritarian, there are elements of central planning, the producing classes are being worked to near suicide, and there is plenty of corruption.  Even so, the upper Producing classes haven't had such opportunities for centuries.  The scale of China-as-a-building-project is just staggering.  According to the Washington Post, China used more concrete between 2011-13 that USA in the whole 20th century.  There has been as much construction in Shanghai in 25 years to equal all the buildings in Chicago.

Not surprisingly, economic development at this pace will have some glitches—even though China has had an abundance of good examples to learn from.  According to DW below, China may be making great strides in renewable energy but their distribution system is, at best, primitive.  I am pretty sure my godfather would tell me the Chinese would work it out.  But it will be very difficult—designing and building an effective grid for distributing renewable energy is at least 10 times as hard as building some wind turbines.

Sieren's China: Winds of change

Frank Sieren, Beijing / at, 06.08.2015

Chinese wind turbines are becoming cheaper and better. But China's power grid is inefficient and coal remains the country's most important energy source, writes DW's Frank Sieren.

First, it was that China overtook Germany in the solar power sector. Chinese systems are better and cheaper. And now - in the space of 10 years - China has also overtaken Germany and the US in the wind energy sector. It's installed 110 gigawatts of wind capacity - that's almost three times more than Germany, which has 40 gigawatts.

However, the biggest turbine makers in the world are still based in the West. Siemens in Germany, General Electric in the US and Vestas in Denmark were the top three in 2014. The Chinese company Goldwind was number 4 - it even went down a notch since 2013. But China is catching up very fast - half of the top 15 turbine manufacturers in the world are Chinese.

Chinese wind turbines are now so affordable and powerful that they are also being exported - not yet to Germany or the US, but to developing countries. Earlier this month, China signed a deal with Pakistan. China will invest $115 million (105 million euros) in a wind power plant in the south of Pakistan that will produce enough electricity to meet the needs of some 100,000 families living in the region.

The system is supposed to be installed by June of next year and in operation by September. A crucial detail is that China will finance the system - this is its greatest advantage over Western competitors. However, even for Pakistan it's a small investment. At the same time, China is investing $6.5 billion to build new nuclear power plants in Pakistan.

Coal still most important energy source

In China itself the government is realistic when it comes to estimating what role wind energy can play to get away from the dependence on coal that is so damaging to the environment. There is still a lot to be done. Some 70 percent of electricity is still generated from coal, compared to 3 percent from wind. This remains the case despite massive growth.

In the first half of this year, some 100 billion kilowatt hours were fed into the grid. That's over 20 percent more than the year before. Yet, this is precisely the problem. Too many windmills were built too fast. Like in Germany, the bottleneck is being caused at the grid. Thousands of kilometers of power supply lines now cross China to bring electricity from the wind-rich West to the energy-hungry East.

But every year, billions of kilowatt hours are lost in China because the electricity lines are too long and not good enough, or windmills are not turned on or poorly maintained. And because the electricity grid is not efficient enough at peak times. In the first half of this year, the many wind turbines supplied efficiently, but in vain. Some 17.5 billion kilowatt hours were lost. That was a new record - 7 percent more than in 2017. Losses of 15 percent worth $140 million in total.

Although wind energy is growing three times faster than the losses, this is still very annoying. To shorten the lines, it would make sense to build more offshore wind power plants directly off the coasts of the most energy-hungry regions. However, in China little is known about offshore wind energy plants. This is what the Germans can still do better. Siemens is number one in the world when it comes to the offshore market. more

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