Analysis - China's wind sector prepares for market reform

CHINA: The Chinese government has issued policy document aiming to develop an open market for its electricity sector and give companies a greater say in the setting of tariffs. However, it appears China's wind power sector is uncertain about its future under any resulting reforms.

The various benchmark tariffs and FITs of the electric power industry have still been decided by the administrative bodies. According to the document, China will also promote market-oriented reform in the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) by further breaking monopolies and introducing competition.

At the same time, there is an ongoing spread of pilot programs to supply direct power to big industrial customers. This has caused concern over wind power's future in the market, as both power transmission and distribution are still in hands of the grid monopolies.

"The state-owned grid monopolies still control the transmission, distribution and sale. The further reforms on electric power industry can't bypass this," said Wang Jun, Director of National Energy Administration's Renewable Energy Department.

According to China National Renewable Energy Centre (CNREC), the grid-connected wind installations in China will exceed 75GW by the end of 2013, with an annual growth at about 12.7GW.

Following the policy announcement, business insiders doubt whether China's wind power sector will regain the momentum of the 2000s, as curtailment is still severe.

In 2012, curtailment lost Chinese wind farms the opportunity to generate 21.8 billion kWh of electricity, but this number in the first three quarters of 2013 was 9.6 billion kilowatt hours.

With the construction of several HVDC projects transmitting wind power from remote wind farms in northern China to big power consumption centers in central and eastern provinces, the curtailment will be greatly alleviated, said Zhang Zhengling, vice director of the development and planning department of State Grid, adding that more lines are still waiting for the approvals.

However, some experts are not so optimistic.

"The relaxation of curtailment can only be temporary, unless the government sets regulations to ensure the transmission lines for wind power projects at the planning phase," said Li Junfeng, director of the China Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA).

"More disturbing is the nationwide promotion of the pilot programs of direct power supply for big customers," said Li, "especially at the present situation without the separation of power transmission and distribution."

NEA issued two documents in August and October to abolish the approval for pilots and to promote the nationwide direct power supply for big customers.

This policy is believed to be the starting of a new round of reforms on China's electricity sector, as it allows the power plants make deals with power users directly, breaking the monopoly of grid companies.

Twelve provinces, including big wind power provinces like Jilin and Gansu, have launched their pilots. Experts believe that more provinces will join next year.

"It is bad news for wind power, as its fluctuating nature and relatively high price will discourage most customers," Li said, "if there is no follow-up support policies, the wind power sector in China will lose about 10% of its developing speed next year."

Qin Haiyan, secretary general of the Chinese Wind Energy Association (CWEA) holds conservative view of this policy's immediate impact on China's wind power sector, pointing out that it is still in the pilot phase.

"Follow-up reforms are urgent, as the direct power supply will never really succeed without the separation of transmission and distribution," said Wang Jun, "Separating the distributing function from the grid companies, and setting the transmission tariff are the priorities."

"If the grid companies' monopoly on electricity selling is broken, all kinds of power will compete on the market. To support the renewable energy, the government needs to tax the consumption of fossil fuels. Then the market will allocate the resources," Wang said.

In its 12th five year plan, the government acknowledges the crucial significance of renewable energy to the country's sustainable development, and vows to support renewable energy's development through various means, such as financial supports, tax incentives, and quota system.

If the renewable energy policies can be fully put into practice, wind power will be the most competitive in an open electricity market in the long term, Wang said.

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