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China's ambitious aim: a windy future

A wind farm in Xinjiang in western China.

As China shifts from coal power, an IEA-assisted roadmap shows how wind can generate 17% of the surging economy’s electricity by 2050

23 December 2012

This article appears in the latest issue of IEA Energy: The Journal of the International Energy Agency.

By Cecilia Tam

China’s ambitions in wind power rival those of many IEA member countries: it plans to use turbines both on- and offshore to generate 8.4% of the country’s electricity by 2030 and then double that share just 20 years later.

To reach those levels, a “roadmap” developed with the IEA sees China adding about 15 gigawatts (GW) of wind power each year to its 2010 base of 31GW, leaping from 1.3% of electricity production to 5% by 2020.

The roadmap was the result of a joint effort led by the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute (NDRC ERI) with close technical support from the IEA. It not only set the expectations for developing wind power but also assessed the country’s strengths, obstacles and priorities for fulfilling the roadmap.

China’s energy requirements have been surging along with its economy, with growth in electricity demand expected to outpace overall energy demand growth as it nearly doubles by 2020 to 8 000 terawatt-hours (TWh), then increasing to 10 000 TWh ten years later and 13 000 TWh in 2050. The roadmap plans for wind power to make up 15% of all installed capacity by 2030 and 26% by 2050.

China’s track record so far lends credence to these ambitions: the country’s proportion of newly installed capacity worldwide increased from less than 10% in 2006 to 49% in 2010.

Wind power to reduce coal-related pollution

Coal is the main fuel used in Chinese power generation, so the shift to wind power will help reduce pollution by avoiding the burning of 130 million tonnes of coal equivalent (Mtce) in 2020, 260 Mtce in 2030 and 660 Mtce in 2050, according to the roadmap. This will reduce sulphur dioxide emissions in 2020 by 1.1 megatonnes (Mt) and in 2050 by 5.6 Mt. Of course, CO2 emissions will be limited as well, with the equivalent of 300 Mt less of this greenhouse gas entering the atmosphere in 2020, because of the expected growth of wind power, and 1 500 Mt less in 2050.

China also expects wind power to generate jobs, especially as its nascent industry gets off the ground. Based on a sampling from 2009 to 2010 and average manufacturing productivity, China expects each megawatt (MW) of wind power installed in the country to generate 15 jobs, including at least 13 in the manufacturing industry. That ratio will fall to as little as 10 jobs per megawatt by 2050 as efficiencies and economies of scale improve. Construction and installation should particularly benefit the economy of Western China, where the greatest onshore wind opportunities lie, by improving roads and other developmental benefits.

Going offshore to be close to biggest demand

As the roadmap unfolds, the country will need to develop offshore wind to keep pace with growing demand for low-carbon electricity in Eastern China. While land-based wind generation is expected to cost no more than CNY 7 500 per kilowatt in 2020, the roadmap sees only slight improvement by 2050. By contrast, near-shore production is forecast to cost CNY 14 000 in 2020, or double the land-based rate, but fall to CNY 10 000 by 2050. The price per kilowatt from now-expensive deep offshore turbines is to fall by 60% in those 30 years, to just double the near-shore rate.

Though costlier, offshore installations benefit from higher load factors and reduced transmission costs, as the offshore potential is located in Eastern China, site of the main demand centres.

To reach its goals, China needs to do more than just install new wind turbines: it needs to reform significant elements of its energy system. As in other countries that are shifting to renewable energy, one major challenge is to orient pricing so it reflects the cost of environmental externalities – i.e. the price of carbon – as well as the value of flexibility and integration costs.

Also, China’s grid will need to be strengthened, expanded and integrated to allow wind power from windier but more remote parts of the country to reach easily and efficiently the main energy demand centres in the east, while also encouraging these windier areas to maximise their own use of wind power. Transparency in power prices and an inter-provincial grid must be in place by 2020.

The mechanics for building expertise
In the immediate term, the roadmap calls for China to establish a renewables research and development fund and an experimental platform to develop and deploy 5MW wind technology by 2015. Near-offshore experimental technology must be in place by 2020. To build such expertise, the roadmap calls for specialist wind-power training courses and curricula to beadded at Chinese universities by 2015.  

Cecilia Tam is Head of the Energy Demand Technology Unit and also leads the Technology Roadmaps programme at the IEA. She has written for numerous IEA publications. Before joining the Agency, she was a Senior Equity Research Analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.


The International Energy Agency (IEA) produces IEA Energy, but all analysis and views contained in the journal are those of individual authors and not necessarily those of the IEA Secretariat or IEA member countries, and are not to be construed as advice on any specific issue or situation.

Photo by kudumomo


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