When Don Quixote charged at windmills atop his horse, he could never have imagined that several centuries later the target of his sword would be providing modern industrial societies with light and power.
The turbine blades turn in the wind, and electricity for domestic and industrial use flows from a generator at the base of the tower. Cooling off in a summer’s evening breeze, we might never realise the vast power the wind can supply us. However, estimates put the total amount of wind power available worldwide at 130 billion kilowatts (or 130 terawatts). And what does that really mean? Well, the US has less than 1 billion kilowatts of power-generating capacity; so in other words, less than 1% of the world’s available wind power could supply all of the electricity needs for the world’s largest economy.
When compared to burning fossil fuels, which emits huge quantities of pollutants and greenhouse gases, and even if compared to hydroelectric power, wind power is the genuinely environmental option. Wind power emits no carbon dioxide or other harmful gases, and has virtually no impact on the environment. It is a boon for a planet increasingly worried about environmental degradation and the greenhouse effect.
One kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from wind power can save up to 600 grams of carbon dioxide – the major trigger of global warming – as well as three grams of sulphur dioxide and two grams of nitrogen oxides (the causes of acid rain). In theory, if all our electricity came from wind power, emissions of greenhouse gases would drop by 60%. And the countries which have already adopted wind power more widely are feeling the benefits. Northern Europe is in an ideal position to exploit wind power, and Denmark has the highest wind generating capacity per head of any country, with Germany leading the world in overall wind power use. Europe is already proving itself a world leader in the use of wind power: in 2005, this alternative resource allowed the continent to avoid the release of 28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 94,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 78,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides. Danish firm BTM estimates that if 10% of our electricity came from wind power by 2025, emissions of carbon dioxide could be reduced by 1.4 billion tonnes.
China is of course known for its vast size, and has an unparalleled opportunity to harness wind power. The country has a theoretical onshore wind power generating capacity of 3.2 billion kilowatts, say the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, more than any other country – although only around 250 million kilowatts of this could be readily exploited. Add to this the potential for offshore wind generation, and the total comes to 1 billion kilowatts. China would only need 60% of that figure to meet all its electricity needs.
Not only is there rich potential for developing wind power, but also this potential is widely spread across the country, with prime spots along the east coast and its islands, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Inner Mongolia, China’s northwest and northeast. The provinces of Gansu, Shandong, Anhui and northern Jiangsu could also have this potential.
As in Europe, the benefits will be easily apparent. For example, wind farms in Inner Mongolia’s Huitengxile and Zhangbei in Hebei province will soon provide 5% of Beijing’s electricity, saving 1 million tonnes of coal and reducing emissions of carbon dioxide by 3 million tons, sulphur dioxide by 25,000 tonnes and smoke and dust by 30,000 tonnes.
Although the widespread use of wind power has so far been held back by high costs, growing environmental concerns and increasing technological improvement has meant these costs have fallen significantly. Preferential policies and tax breaks have helped too, and wind power is now able to compete with traditional sources of energy in a number of countries, which has in turn stimulated the growth of the industry over the past few years. At the end of 2006, 75 million kilowatts of wind power generating capacity were in place worldwide, two-thirds of it in Europe.
China has made good progress in its own application of wind power, but there remains a huge potential for expansion. The total annual capacity of China’s current wind turbines could still not power Beijing for a month. But the US, coming late in the game, has recently leapt into second place in the world in terms of total installed capacity. China has only 40 wind farms, with 1,500 turbines and 2.6 million kilowatts of power-generating capacity, less than a half of neighbouring India, putting the country sixth worldwide.
A combination of federal policy support and state tax breaks slashed the costs of wind power and stimulated its growth in the US, and China’s own policy-makers are starting to adopt the same measures. China’s Renewable Energy Law was promulgated in 2005 to boost the renewable power industry. Wind power receives state support, with preferential policies including tax breaks and assistance in connecting to the national grid; this has lead to an exponential growth in the industry. An extra 1.34 million kilowatts of generating capacity was installed in 2006, accounting for 8.9% of global growth and an increase of 165.83% on the previous year. If that rate of growth can be maintained, China will have 20.24 million kilowatts of wind power by 2010, and 225 million by 2020. That would mean 10% of China’s power coming from wind, and a 450 million tonnes reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, a sulphur dioxide reduction of 2.25 million tons and a cut in nitrogen oxides emissions of 1.35 million tones. And China would enjoy bluer skies.
Global wind power generating capacity is increasing by 25% a year, and an increasing number of nations are developing this clean source of energy. But so far we have only made tiny use of this incredible resource. Estimates show that if China and Europe made use of all available wind power along their coasts, they could meet all their energy needs. This is only the beginning.
Li Siqi is editorial assistant for chinadialogue’s Beijing office