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Wasted Effort
China’s Underperforming Wind Turbines Can Teach Greens a Lesson

China has leapfrogged its way to the position of number one in the world in installed wind energy capacity thanks to a focused directive from Beijing to install more and more turbines. But simply erecting towers and sticking blades to them isn’t enough to start efficiently producing wind power in the sorts of quantities that China wants and needs. As Bloomberg reports, shoddy turbine quality and poor siting is hamstringing China’s huge but underperforming wind energy industry:

[E]ven with double the wind capacity, China still produces less electricity from turbines when compared with the U.S. That’s because it’s installing lower-quality machines using less reliable breezes and doing so more quickly than the distribution grid can take in the flows.

“The numbers are striking,” said Justin Wu, head of Asia-Pacific for London-based Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “They say China is building wind faster than it can be absorbed.” […]

[R]esearchers point to a myriad of other reasons for the shortcomings of turbines in China, ranging from lower turbine quality, grid connection problems and the failure of grid operators to transmit wind power to users because they prefer other types of energy sources such as coal. “Improvements in both technology choices and the policy environment are critical in addressing these challenges,” the authors of [a report published earlier this year in the journal Nature Energy] concluded.

Explanations for China’s wind failings mainly fall under three categories. First, in their race to the bottom the Chinese have installed turbines with lower efficiency rates than the kinds you might find on, say, an American wind farm. Second, the quality of the wind (an admittedly bizarre concept) is sub-optimal, the result of the mad rush made by China’s local provinces to meet Beijing’s installation requirements by installing wind power facilities without doing their due diligence in researching the best places to site their turbines. Finally, China is putting up new wind farms faster than it can connect them to the grid, and on especially breezy days those under-built transmission networks struggle to take in all the electricity turbines are providing. As a result, China squandered one-fifth of its wind energy potential last year.

China’s experience is proof positive that it takes more than a government’s strident commitment to get the winds of change a-blowin’ for renewables. Greens like to imagine that the only thing keeping wind and solar energy back these days are short-sighted politicians, but the truth is that renewables—with their high costs, intermittency issues, and grid pressures—still have a lot of problems to solve before they can become the kind of transformative energy option environmentalists want them to be. Beijing (and any other government interested in capitalizing on the admittedly huge potential of renewable energy) would be far better served investing in the research and development of solutions to those aforementioned problems—more efficient solar panels and wind turbines, commercially scalable energy storage options, and smarter grids—than it would be wasting money constructing lousy wind farms in windless places.

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  • SimpleGuy

    Your diagnosis and conclusion do not coincide. This was a perfect opportunity to lambaste the failure of centralized governmental programs, however you target cost, indeterminacy, and “grid pressure” (that needs definition) as the problem. That’s completely the wrong takeaway one should get from this article. Wind power is perfectly efficient when done by a private developer, but when you get a communist government pushing things along that’s where the problems occur.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      I agree, the Chinese Bureaucrats are the most corrupt in the world, and the level of Graft in government programs there is unimaginable to those in the West.

    • SLEcoman

      No, wind power is not perfectly efficient when developed by a private developer because wind speeds are not correlated with electrical demand. Thus, wind power may peak at night when electrical grids typically have lots of unused capacity and often does not peak during the late afternoon/early evening when electrical grids typically are tight on generating capacity. This potential mismatch creates stability problems for the electric grid operator at night (too much generation) and during the day (too little generation). This problem is repeated virtually daily during the summer in Texas. Wind power generation typically peaks at midnight to 3 am in the morning and plunges to <20% of installed capacity in the late afternoon when electric demand peaks due to air conditioning load. For example, as I write this at 4:14 pm CDT Thursday June 24, ERCOT wind generation is currently 588 MW, which represents <5% of installed wind capacity in ERCOT (BTW current ERCOT load is 62,269 MW). However, at 1 am this morning wind power generation was 4,620 MW, but ERCOT load was only 38,748 MW.

      While I agree that China's wind power problems are another example of the inherent problems with centralized governmental programs, I do not think China's wind power program is an example of a good idea executed poorly. I believe it is an example of a bad idea executed poorly.

      I would also point out that, in the US, wind turbines typically become inoperable/uneconomical to repair before they are 20 years old. In contrast, there are many coal-fired electric generating units operating dependably that are well past 40 years old. The solution to some of the problems with wind turbine life expectancy do not appear to have an apparent solution in the near-term (e.g. ~25% of blade failures are due to lightening strikes). Yet wind power advocates calculate their economics assuming equal life expectancy for wind turbines and other forms of power generation.

    • Andrew Allison

      Exactly. What the Chinese government demanded was more turbines, rather than more power generation. The result is entirely predictable.

  • Kevin

    Reminds me of the backyard steel furnaces of the Great Leap Forward. Hopefully this round of central planning won’t lead to 50 million starving to death.

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