20 June 2014

China's winding windy road

I taught a fourth-year class at Simon Fraser University where I allowed students to pick a "natural resource" topic that they would study, present and write on. I learned a lot from my students (who enjoyed the experience [pdf]) and asked each to write a blog post on an interesting dimension of the area they studied.

Here's a edited post from RC:

With the rapid economic growth in China, environmental issues have become serious problems, and policy makers are paying more attention to them. Billions of dollars have been invested in wind power to reduce reliance on coal (more than 80 percent of the electricity in China is from coal-fired plants).* However, the result is worse than expected, due to poor government management.

With the development of wind power, China did not upgrade the transmission system at the same time, the capacity of transmission lines could not catch up the electricity production. It is like there are limited roads, but too many cars. The lack of transmission capacity means that many wind farms are all cost and no benefit.

[RC sent this video of a windfarm in China]

China will spend $88 billion [!] to address this problem on the Ultra High Voltage Electricity Transmissions project, which will transmit electricity from generating areas in the north and northwest to populations in the southeast. Some economists argue that the project is inefficient because it would be cheaper to bring more coal to power-hungry areas, but transmission capacity is necessary to put existing investments into use and allow for growth in future generating capacity.

Besides transmission, China is also turning to offshore wind power. This source is attractive because China's eastern regions have abundant offshore wind resources, good grid connections, and high electricity demand. Is offshore wind power a good idea? It's very expensive to install, but it's also clean. China has two successful offshore wind farms, but it needs more experience in planning, construction, maintenance, and cost control if it's going to avoid unnecessary pain.

Bottom Line: China is learning how to use wind power. Success will require more time than money.

* Here's the Straight Dope on wind power in the US, which is getting thrashed by cheap natural gas and changing subsidy laws...

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