Although Miao acknowledges that wind turbines typically run for 20 years, he says that in sandy regions, such as Gansu, life expectancy is greatly reduced as sand will cause abrasive erosion in turbines. Another problem, Miao adds, is the potential for enormous imbalances between regional electricity supply and demand. He worries that the Jiuquan wind project will become another Three Gorges - the massive hydroelectric project in central China's Hubei Province, which Miao says has failed to serve Chinese energy demand in a rational fashion. He believes the project should have supplied Hubei with plentiful electricity, but instead sends power to big centres of demand in the east, while leaving Hubei to buy coal-generated power from neighbouring provinces. That, he says, drives up logistics costs and wastes resources.
Jiuquan officials, quick to lambast Miao as defeatist, are joined by turbine suppliers who rattle off examples of machines installed more than a decade ago in Jiuquan and the similarly sandy far-western province of Xinjiang that are still functioning today. Han Junliang, chairman of top Chinese wind turbine supplier Sinovel, says: "I think those who believe turbines will not run simply because of sand do not understand the wind industry deeply. I think these people have not done enough research."
Some insiders, however, quietly voice concerns similar to Miao's. Wang Ningbo, director of the wind power technology centre at Gansu Provincial Power Company, says Chinese regions with the weakest wind resources consume around 90% of the country's total electricity supply. Under China's 2006 Renewable Energy Law, power grids are obligated to buy all output generated by state-approved wind farms, ensuring steady revenue flow at the Jiuquan project. Yet bottlenecks on the grid are inevitable because western China cannot consume all the electricity such installations will produce. The gap between supply and demand for western Chinese wind power will become particularly acute by next year, he believes.
"In terms of regulation of load, power stability and voltage regulation on the grid, wind energy is not able to assume responsibility as a leading power source," says Wang. He also blames grid technologies for falling short. Others have echoed this view. Zhang Yuan, general manager of China's largest wind farm owner, state-run Longyuan Electric Power Group, last year said that the government's blueprint for grid expansion did not line up with plans at the local level. At end-2008, more than a fourth of all erected wind turbines were not even connected to the grid.
There have been calls for market reform encouraging interconnectivity between provincial grids. Several links between isolated grids have been created but, in practice, little power is exported between them. Sebastian Meyer, research director of Beijing-based consultancy Azure International, has said a national-level spot market for power - where prices that may be much higher than average on-grid power purchase rates are available - would benefit the industry on the whole by boosting trade and providing funds for new infrastructure. The beginnings of such a market may lie in the real-time pricing system for coal already in place (Windpower Monthly, December 2009).
Gansu's wind sector launched in 1996 and by 2003 had installed an exploratory 20MW. By 2006, installed capacity had reached 110MW. Things got serious in 2007, when vice-premier Zeng Peiyan visited Jiuquan and praised its foray into wind. Taking that as a cue, the Gansu provincial government proposed what it called a wind equivalent of the massive Three Gorges hydro project in Hubei Province.
In 2007, the National Development and Reform Commission officially approved a plan to construct a 10GW-level wind power project in Jiuquan, the world's first of that size, along with early-stage preparations for supporting power transmission. Last August, construction began on an initial 3.8GW and, by end-2009, Jiuquan had 33 wind farms either completed or under construction. Installed capacity is scheduled to reach 5.2GW this year, 12.7GW in 2015, 20GW in 2020 and more than 40GW in the longer term. Backing development are China's top five electric power companies - Huaneng, Datang, Guodian, China Power Investment Corporation and Huadian.
Supporters of the Jiuquan project say it offers massive wind potential. According to the Jiuquan Municipal Development and Reform Committee (MDRC), the city theoretically has 150GW of wind. At least 40GW are said to be realistically exploitable. The quality of wind is also said to be good, with an average annual wind speed at ten metre height above 5.7 metres/second. In this type of wind-speed, turbines can typically run at full capacity for the equivalent of 2,300 hours a year, representing a capacity factor of 26%.
Unlike the typhoon-swept east coast, the Jiuquan region does not experience destructive wind speeds. "All these elements make Jiuquan exceptionally favourable to the development of wind power and ideal to construct largescale wind farms," says Wu Guocheng, a senior official at the Jiuquan MDRC.
There are also huge social and economic benefits at stake. "The wind power project will stimulate local economic development, keeping our gross domestic product growth at an annual rate of more than 10%," says Jiuquan mayor Kang Jun. That is partly thanks to the arrival of wind turbine manufacturers, operations-and-maintenance providers, architects, transport providers and electronics firms. "The wind power project will create about 10,000 jobs by 2015," predicts Kang.
Jiuquan sorely needs these jobs. The municipality of Yumen, located within Jiuquan and the cradle of China's oil industry, has watched its petroleum deposits dwindle since the 1990s and, in 2003, it officially abandoned oil as a main industry. Population collapsed from 110,000 to 30,000 as businesses fled to the neighbouring Tuhai oilfield. Local officials have desperately turned to wind power for economic salvation.
And with some considerable success: Jiuquan has lured 22 leading wind power equipment manufacturers to an industrial park dedicated to serving the project. These include China's top three wind turbine suppliers, Sinovel, Goldwind and Dongfang Electric; as well as the top-three blade producers, Sinoma, Zhongfu and Zhonghang. Last year, eight factories started operation, producing 500 1.5MW turbines, 360 sets of blades and more than a thousand wind towers. In December, Sinovel produced its first 3MW turbine at its Jiuquan factory. By the time the giant wind project reaches 10GW, Jiuquan hopes to be supplying the country with expertise in wind plant construction, management and operation, says Kang.
Hurdles to clear
But critics such as Miao can still point to many daunting challenges. Greater local consumption of output from Jiuquan would lessen the burden on the grid. But in 2008, Gansu power demand was just over 8GW and it ended up exporting much of its electricity. In 2010, the province's power demand is not expected to reach 9.5GW but exports will rise from 2008 levels. Under such circumstances, many are calling Jiuquan's 5.2GW target increasingly impractical.
That puts the onus on remote consumers. But according to one expert at Gansu Provincial Power Company, the technology currently in place on Gansu's grid is only able to adjust to the ebb and flow of 1.5GW of wind power. If Jiuquan is to achieve its 2020 ambition of 20GW of wind generation, some government and industry experts believe this will require another 20GW of combined hydro and thermal generation to balance the grid.
High-voltage transmission is also crucial. The grid in the Hexi corridor, where the Gansu wind project is located, has transmission capacity of just 700MW - far too little to carry much of the Jiuquan project's output to big load centres on China's eastern coast. Operators have sometimes needed to idle Jiuquan turbines. "At present, wind power's impact on our power grid is not significant," says Wang Xuezhong, deputy chief engineer at Gansu Jiuquan Ultrahigh Voltage Power Transmission Company. "But we will be affected by year-end if the 5.2GW target is realised."
Gansu Provincial Power Company's Wang Ningbo adds that for western wind to power the eastern coast, more thermal power generation is needed as backup. Rather than ship coal from the west to power plants in the east, he says, it should be burnt at plants closer to western mines, with the power generated there stepping in when wind flowing around turbines in Jiuquan subsides. Coal is relatively cheap in Gansu, and two local businesses are building backup plants. But Gansu's hydro and thermal generation is not expected to be up to the task of balancing wind. Experts say the province will need to tap hydropower from across north-west China.
There has been progress in closing the gap between wind power supply and demand. China is introducing a long list of technical requirements into its grid code, spelling out how turbines are to be linked to transmission cables to improve the stability of the power supply. Late last year, Azure estimated China's 2009 and 2010 annual investments in the grid to be the equivalent of $85 billion. That includes the kind of new ultra-high-voltage transmission capacity needed to get wind power from west to east.
Miao is not convinced. According to a report by the US-based China Affairs Research Institute, he said: "China's wind farms of today are mostly face-saving projects. Because wind turbine generators are erected in sandy areas they will quickly incur damage. In five years, the result will be catastrophic." Yet last year, Gansu Provincial Power Company started construction of a CNY 12 billion ($1.8 billion) 750kV transmission link. But this project can still only deliver 1.8GW of wind power to the east, say officials. Experts believe nothing short of the world's most advanced high-voltage transmission technology is needed. That is just what China aims to provide: In May 2009, it released a nationwide grid development plan to install 6,000 kilometres of 800kV and 1,000kV lines by 2020, at a cost of CNY 4 trillion ($586 billion), according to a recent Azure report commissioned by conservationist group WWF. Now, if Jiuquan and its resident manufacturers can persuade MIIT sceptic Miao that Gansu's sand is not a threat, China may yet ride out the minister's storm.