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Answer to China’s woes is blowing in the wind

China is the world’s biggest producer of wind power

Wulabo wind power plant – By the end of 2013, total installed wind capacity here measured 91.4 gigawatts (GW), around 27 per cent of the world’s total, and the plan is to raise this to 200 GW by the end of the decade

You see the scores of wind turbines at Wulabo wind power plant, 30km southeast of the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, from a long way away, and then you drive through the vast sea of masts at the facility for 10 minutes.

While much of the focus is on China’s appalling pollution, China is the world’s biggest producer of wind power and this elegant wind farm in the country’s most far-western province point the way to a more sustainable future.

By the end of 2013, total installed wind capacity here measured 91.4 gigawatts (GW), around 27 per cent of the world’s total, and the plan is to raise this to 200 GW by the end of the decade. The European Union, by contrast, has a total of 90 GW of installed wind capacity.

At capacities like these, wind is becoming competitive with coal as a source of power, and that has major implications for power generation in China – and for the polluted skies of its cities.

There are nine major wind farms here in Xinjiang, and the country’s biggest producer, Gold Wind, is based in Urumqi.

Data from the Xinjiang section of the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) show that last year, the combined installed capacity of wind power, hydropower and solar power stations exceeded 1,368 million KW, which is around one-third of all capacity in Xinjiang.

One of the reasons why there is so much political tension in this province is the feeling that the ethnic Han Chinese are here to exploit the provinces abundant oil and gas reserves, which is resented by the Muslim Uighurs who make up the majority and feel they are not sharing in the spoils.

Indeed, the roads of this vast province, which accounts for 16 per cent of China’s land area, but only two per cent of its population, are lined with tankers and trucks ferrying natural resources out of Xinjiang.

However, one uncontentious power source is wind power, of which there is an abundance here at the edges of the Taklamakan Desert.

The Worldwatch Institute says that double-digit growth continued in the global wind market in 2013, and of today’s 318 gigawatts (GW) total generating capacity, 35 GW was added in 2013 alone.

Sharp slowdown

This marks at 12.5 per cent increase over 2012, but is a sharp slowdown from the 21 per cent average annual growth rate over the past decade, and overall investment was down from €59.4 billion in 2012 to €59 billion in 2013, according to Worldwatch research associate Mark Konold and climate and energy Intern Xiangyu Wu in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online trend.

As the masts at Wulabo show, China is bucking the trend.

In 2013, China installed 16.1 GW of new wind power capacity, 24 per cent more than it added the previous year. By the end of 2013, total installed wind capacity here measured 91.4 GW.

“Wind-generated power is becoming more cost-competitive against new coal- or gas-fired plants, even without incentives and support schemes. Over the past few years, capital costs of wind power have decreased because of large technological advances such as larger machines with increased power yield, higher hub height, longer blades, and greater nameplate capacity (which indicates the maximum output of a wind turbine),” the researchers say.

The big challenge is integrating wind power to other cities, and getting the electricity produced by wind power to other cities, but projects are well advanced to move the power to other centres, including Zhengzhou in Henan Province and to the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing.