Western idealists often portray China as a country that “can get things done,” be it investment in infrastructure or the expansion of renewable energy. What they often fail to ask is whether the done things will actually be useful.
On March 21, China announced it will increase total wind power capacity by 22 percent to 139 gigawatts (GW). This is right on track to achieve its ambitious target of 200 GW by 2020.
As a comparison, the United States has 74 GW installed at the end of 2015 and no ambitious plan to boost it to 200 anytime soon.
The main difference: The United States actually uses most of the installed capacity and China doesn’t.
“Comparing to the United States, which consistently has an edge in terms of utilization of its wind turbines, China’s wind farms are under-performing,” writes Michael Davidson at The EnergyCollective.
On the surface, there are two major problems that lead to windmills being built but not being used.
The first reason is that they are not connected to the national power grid. According to Michael Davidson’s latest estimates, as much as 20 percent of total wind capacity wasn’t connected to the power grid in 2012, although there have been improvements since.
China has also indicated it will build more high-power transmission lines to transport the energy from the wind-rich but population-poor region of Northeast China to the energy consumption-heavy population centers on the coast.
According to the China Wind Power Review and Outlook, installed capacity in three northeastern regions accounted for 50 percent of total installed capacity as of 2014, but those regions only consume 10 percent of the nation’s electricity.
“The electricity cannot be consumed locally and transmission is needed to send the wind electricity to the load centers in the east,” states the report. Some of the farms probably never will.
Until the wind energy can actually be transported to where it’s needed, the windmills will not only stand idle, but also be blasted by sand 24/7 because the northeastern regions not only have a lot of wind, but also a lot of sand, which wears on the turbines.
In 2010, Miao Wei, the then vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said China should not build too many wind farms because the equipment will inevitably be damaged by the sand, according to the Beijing Times.
Too Much Power
But it gets worse. Even if the wind farms are connected to a grid, the grid operators didn’t use or “curtailed” as much as 20 percent of wind energy production in 2011 because they had to use energy from coal power plants instead.
“Grid operators make decisions a day ahead on which thermal plants to turn on, so if wind is significantly higher than forecasted 24 hours before, the difference may be curtailed to maintain grid stability,” writes Davidson.
This wasteful investment is a direct result of a completely warped incentive system on the central and local government level, writes Mark DeWeaver in his book “Animal Spirits With Chinese Characteristics.”
“As the [central government] targets are for capacity rather than annual production, an incentive was created to build in the windiest locations regardless of their proximity to the existing transmission network or the economic feasibility of installing new power lines,” he writes.
Because local governments compete against each other on the capacity targets, they went to work and built the capacity irrespective of economic feasibility. Even former vice minister Miao Wei said Chinese wind farms are mostly image projects with the sole purpose of making the local official look good.