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Special Report - Opportunity and Risk in China - Quality issues - Lots of turbines but too little electricity

In China, meeting government targets for installed wind power capacity does not necessarily mean that energy generation will match the forecasts linked to those targets. With no profit motive driving wind farms owners to focus on pushing up revenue from sales of electricity produced, attention to the operation and maintenance of turbines in China is not the same as in countries with market economies.

Poor turbine quality, insufficient technological innovation, lack of experienced engineers and a continuing heavy reliance on imported key components are all cited as major obstacles to the operation of efficient wind farms by the leaders of both China's wind power trade groups, Shi Pengfei of the Chinese Wind Energy Association (CWEA) and Zhu Junsheng of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA). The market is flawed, they readily admit.

The Chinese approach to building a wind power industry has been to acquire know-how from the West, which has been conducting wind research and development (R&D) for the past quarter century. The names of wind consultancy companies such as Britain's Garrad Hassan and Germany's Aerodyn are probably as well known in Chinese wind circles as they are in the European industry. Both companies have helped Chinese firms design wind turbines. Other turbine designs have come directly from companies such as Repower, a German wind turbine maker, Vensys of Germany and AMSC Windtec from Austria. The approach has helped Chinese companies rapidly close a technological gap between them and their overseas competitors and quickly capture market share.

The strategy is not without its pitfalls, however, say both Shi and Zhu. Many domestic firms have rushed products to market too fast. "The wind turbine is a complicated machine. Its technical requirement is very strict," points out Shi. "The successful manufacture of highly reliable, high quality, large turbines requires the process of technological accumulation. These turbines also need to pass operational tests. So it is necessary for enterprises to build up their R&D ability. Simple purchase of foreign technology will not work."

Pan Weiping of Garrad Hassan agrees. Many new companies, most without any prior experience of designing or producing a complete wind turbine, have simply bought a production license from an overseas firm and jumped straight to making utility scale turbines. As long as they can manufacture planes, ships or trains, they also believe they can make a wind turbine, says Pan. "They jumped over the process of basic research and technological accumulation, so they are short of practical experience, skilled technicians and basic technology."

Chinese and cheap

Chinese wind turbines are reportedly some 20% or more cheaper than foreign turbines made in the country, making them an attractive choice for developers looking to meet government targets for installed capacity. Imports are out of the question: the Chinese government requires that 70% of all wind plant components are made locally.

Some of the bigger and better known Chinese companies are working hard to improve quality while also ensuring new turbines attain international standard certification from the likes of Germanischer Lloyd to reassure the global community they are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with world leaders like Vestas, GE Energy, and Gamesa. Other companies are paying scant attention to turbine quality, which is becoming an increasingly serious problem, says Shi.

At many existing wind farms, the operational availability of turbines is low, with a high number failing to meet the required availability of 95%, he says. Even when operating, they are inefficient. Capacity factors are woefully low. "In China, the average capacity load factor for a wind plant is around 22%. In the US it is 35%," says Sebastian Meyer from Azure International. "Some discrepancy can be put down to the fact that bigger turbines are typical in the US and because the US has more experience in building and operating wind plant. What we know for sure, though, is that wind power in China per kilowatt hour costs more than it needs to. The focus on cheap assets has led to an under performance of the market."

CREIA's Zhu agrees. The cost of building a wind farm in China is fairly reasonable, currently pegged at around CNY 8-8.5 million/MW ($1.17-1.24 million/MW), according to Garrad Hassan. Operational costs are relatively high, however, due to the frequency of turbine quality problems, says Zhu. "Both manufacturers and project developers are paying a high price for turbine repair," he adds. Poor wind resource assessment, project management and maintenance of wind farms also piles on extra costs he says. "Some investors started projects hastily based on outdated data. As a result, performance of some wind farms is not as good as expected and investors continue to suffer losses."

"Of course the Chinese state companies are interested in profit, but they have more pressing concerns such as targets," says Meyer. Shi agrees. In China, failure to meet renewable energy capacity targets comes with severe penalties. For this reason, electricity generators and local governments are focused on raising installed wind farm capacity rather than wind power production.

"At the heart of the problem is that the top leaders and government officials in China tend to be the top engineers, not economists. So they see the solutions to their problems as engineering solutions. In some ways this is a good thing, but it may also be China's greatest weakness," Meyer says. China believes that closing the technology gap with the West is the solution to its problems, he continues, and co-operating with foreign companies is the means to achieving that end. But that is not the same as welcoming foreign companies with open arms. "It means: you hand over the blue prints and we take it from there. China is not yet interested in introducing fiscal measures such as generation-based incentives," says Meyer.

"The question is: is China destroying wealth by simply deploying hundreds of cheap prototypes as opposed to creating and fostering wealth in the long term by building up an industry with quality products for export? We simply cannot answer that question at this time and it is a great concern," he adds. It is a concern shared by many in the international wind community. Poor quality will lead to poor performance and the failure of wind power. At risk, if Chinese wind power goes belly up, is the technology's current status globally as a realistic alternative to fossil fuel and nuclear generation.

Article by Gail Rajgor, Senior Editor

Lin Jianyang, China Features for Windpower Monthly.

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