Good reading for students on China and Wind Power

A good new reading on the potential role of renewable energy in addressing China’s burgeoning GHG emissions can be found in this week’s issue of Science (McElroy, et al., Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity in China, 325 Science 1378-1380 (2009)) though the authors also emphasize some of the imposing economic and technological constraints that we face in decarbonizing the world’s major economies. Among the important take-aways from the article:

  • Meeting the increased demand for electricity in China over the next 20 years will require construction of the equivalent of 800 GW of coal-fired power plants. If most of this demand is met by coal, as is the case for 80% of China’s electricity needs currently, that could add as much as 3.5 GT of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually;
  • While wind currently only provides 0.4% of China’s total electricity supply, a suite of 1.5 MW turbines deployed in onshore regions with favorable wind resources could potentially provide more than seven times the current national consumption of electricity:
    • Even at a relatively modest contract price, wind could viably produce sufficient electrcity to cover total projected demand for 2030
  • The authors indicate that there are, however, some formidable barriers in substantially ramping up wind power production in China. This includes the following:
    • Grid companies have little incentive to connecting new sources of wind-generated electrcity because the variability of wind resources in time and space creates discontinuities in demand that would become a great concern with major increases in utilization. The author suggest that strategies such as the development of an integrated national grid could be helpful, but this would require a substantially most costly grid management protocol;
    • Introducing 640 GW of wind farms over the next 20 years, which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30% would require an investment of 6.0 trillion RMB (about $900 billion U.S. dollars). While this is a large sum, in comparison to a current annual GDP of 26 trillion RMB, the authors argue that it is reasonable, especially given the scales of investments in generating capacity and grid infrastructure that will be required anyway in a country that’s likely to continue to experience tremendous economic growth and energy demands.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is far from certain that China will choose this path given its abundant supplies of cheap coal; however, the article suggests one reasonable path that China could take should it ultimately choose to integrate itself into the international framework to reduce emissions.

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