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China heads for grid chaos in small steps

CHINA: A proliferation of wind farm phases that are just small enough to narrowly avoid government scrutiny risks causing chaos in the Chinese market.

Xinjiang Santanghu's wind farm in north-west China is one of many built in 49.55MW stages
Xinjiang Santanghu's wind farm in north-west China is one of many built in 49.55MW stages

Under Chinese law, the national government has the power to reject wind farms that exceed 50MW in capacity. As a result, local administrations are building wind farm phases of 49.5MW to duck national scrutiny and clear project phases themselves.

Now experts in the country are warning that the proliferation of 49.5MW plants could lead to chaos on the grid as administrators face hundreds of unregulated megawatts of variable wind requiring access without being able to plan for their integration.

For example, north-west China's Xinjiang Santanghu Wind Power, part of major wind developer Huaneng Group, announced recently that it has completed construction of the first stage of No. 1 Santanghu wind farm in June at 49.5MW with an investment of CNY 370 million ($55 million). The second stage - also at the magic 49.5MW - was due to be completed at the end of September. The company said it had launched early-stage preparations for the construction of No.2 Santanghu wind farm, totalling 500MW. The project is separated into ten stages - at 49.5MW each.

Santanghu is not an isolated case. In fact, it is common practice in China's wind power industry. In July, Datang started construction on the first - 49.5MW - stage of Tuokexun wind farm in Turpan, Xinjiang. In June, China Guangdong Nuclear Corporation laid the foundation for the 200MW Jimunai wind farm in Xinjiang. The first stage is 49.5MW.

"The unique 49.5MW phenomenon is a result of a contest between local governments and central government to grab the authority to examine and approve wind farms," says Xia Tian, an industry veteran who has tracked China's wind power policy over a long period.

"The mushrooming of 49.5MW wind farms shows that local governments are turning a deaf ear to central government's overall planning," he adds. "Such unchecked approval of wind farms, featuring separation of wind farms and supporting facility construction, results in a series of problems, such as difficulty to integrate wind power to the grid and find users of wind power."

Shu Yinbiao, deputy general manager of the State Grid Corporation of China, says the country's wind projects are now facing serious problems, due in large part to the 49.5MW phenomenon. Wind power projects are approved ahead of grid projects and built separately, with the likely end user of wind plant output often unclear.

Zhang Yunzhou, president of the State Grid Energy Research Institute, warns that many ongoing major wind projects will be crippled if China does not harmonise wind farm and grid planning.

Yet local governments continue to approve 49.5MW phases in order to draw cash into the local economies. The Chinese government will still subsidise the 49.5MW facilities, even though it is not responsible for approving their construction. "By approving 49.5MW wind farms, local governments will attract more investors, behind whom are projects of hundreds of millions or billions of yuan investment," says Xia. "The subsidies come from central government and thus expand local gross domestic product." In a lyrical flourish, Xia warns that the Chinese government's apparent willingness to plough funding into small rogue local projects aimed at simply boosting local economies is akin to "treating babies like soldiers".

For now, the 49.5MW loophole continues to drive the proliferation of the Chinese sector, leading to what some sources in China fear is becoming a chaotic industrial orgy.

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