Big wind could wean China off coal

By Bryan Walker 17/09/2009

At least some Americans and Chinese are getting together to work on climate change. A team of researchers from Harvard University and Beijing’s Tsinghua University have been conducting a serious investigation into China’s wind power potential. Their work was the cover story for the Sep 11 issue of Science (sub required) and is reported in  the Harvard Gazette.  MIT’s Technology Review also carries a useful report.  

 ’The world is struggling with the question of how do you make the switch from carbon-rich fuels to something carbon-free,’ said lead author Michael McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies. ’The real question for the globe is: What alternatives does China have?’

At least one big one, according to the researchers. Enough wind power potential to satisfy all the country’s electricity demand until at least 2030. Currently wind energy supplies only 0.4 percent of China’s total electricity supply, but it has been doubling every year over the past four years so that China now stands fourth in the world behind the US, Germany and Spain in terms of installed capacity. The research project sees current wind generation dwarfed by the enormous potential resource.

The researchers used meteorological data from the Goddard Earth Observing Data Assimilation System at NASA. Further, they assumed the wind energy would be produced from a set of land-based 1.5-megawatt turbines operating over non-forested, ice-free, rural areas with a slope of no more than 20 percent.

’By bringing the capabilities of atmospheric science to the study of energy we were able to view the wind resource in a total context,’ explained co-author Chris P. Nielsen, executive director of the Harvard China Project.

The analysis indicated that a network of wind turbines operating at as little as 20 percent of their rated capacity could provide potentially as much as 24.7 petawatt-hours of electricity annually, or more than seven times China’s current consumption. The researchers also determined that wind energy alone, at around 7.6 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, could accommodate the country’s entire demand for electricity projected for 2030. The costs were calculated within the framework currently provided for renewable energy development in China.

How much of China would be needed for the wind farms?  The regions suited for the farms would add up to an area about three quarters the size of Texas.  The physical footprints of the turbines woiuld be smaller than that, allowing the areas to remain agricultural. 

A low-carbon energy future would require China to make an investment of around $900 billion (at current prices) over the next 20 years. The scientists consider this a large but not unreasonable investment given the present size of the Chinese economy. An expanded and improved energy grid would be needed, but this will be required anyway  to accommodate the anticipated growth in power demand.

’We are trying to cut into the current defined demand for new electricity generation in China, which is roughly a gigawatt a week – or an enormous 50 gigawatts per year,’ said McElroy. ’China is bringing on several coal-fire power plants a week. By publicizing the opportunity for a different way to go we will hope to have a positive influence.’

The future of renewable energy in China is obviously a crucial element as the world tries to work out a global deal for emissions reduction. It was interesting to learn of this collaborative research on a possible way forward.  I don’t know what standing this particular project may have, but it was certainly encouraging to read about it.

On the same day as reading about the project I watched Todd Stern, the US climate envoy, being interviewed by Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s Hard Talk programme. The question of China was raised.  While Stern was cautious in spelling out any specific expectations from countries like China and India in the lead up to Copenhagen it is clear to us all that if they are not able to get on the lowered emissions pathway there will be little hope of successfully combating the threat of climate change.  That fact will be apparent to them as well, for all their frustration at finding themselves unable to make full use of the cheap fossil fuel route to development which the developed world took. As I recall (and I can’t check because the BBC website will irritatingly not play the programme to viewers outside of the UK) what Stern hopes for is something less than declared targets, but nevertheless plans specific enough to show that the large developing countries will soon be on the way to steady emissions reduction.  The relevance of research undertakings like that of the Harvard-Tsinghua team is obvious — as would be a lot of other good things like technology sharing and financial support where needed.