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China's Wind Power Plans Turn On Coal

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China's Wind Power Plans Turn On Coal

Asia

China's Wind Power Plans Turn On Coal

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

At the Copenhagen climate summit, many people are looking at China, which is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. China has announced that it hopes to get 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2020. Beijing is building the world's biggest wind power project. All that sounds impressive, but as NPR's Louisa Lim discovered, adding wind power in China also means adding new polluting power stations.

(Soundbite of wind)

LOUISA LIM: The blades of a 20-story wind turbine slicing and chopping through the air are the only noise out here. Dozens of Chinese-made turbines dot the bleak landscape. They call this the Three Gorges on the Land, drawn parallels to China's gigantic hydroelectric project.

But this is the first stage of a massive wind power complex that will produce 12 times the amount of power of the world's current number one. And this is just one of seven wind power mega projects China's building.

I've been driven out here by Zhang Huayao. He's an engineer who spent almost two years building this wind farm in remote Jiuquan in Gansu province in the far west of the country. Like most of China's wind farms, it's far from the massive cities that need the electricity. He's brimming with enthusiasm.

Mr. ZHANG HUAYAO (Engineer): (Through Translator) Of course I'm proud. This is the first wind farm on the Three Gorges on the Land 10 gigawatt mega-project.

LIM: That sense of pride is shared by the locals, who are building roads to the wind farms. These sandy wastelands bordering the Gobi desert are sparsely populated. So no people needed to be resettled, no land seized to build these wind farms. And the wind farms are bringing much-needed work - an estimated 6,000 jobs a year in this area.

Li Geping earns $8 a day road building. She loves the wind turbines.

Ms. LI GEPING (Road Builder): (Through Translator) Normally, there's no work here, but the wind farms have brought a lot of new jobs. This place is normally so barren and desolate. Now, the wind turbines are here. It's beautiful.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Wind power is subsidized by the government. It pays the equivalent of almost $.08 for each kilowatt hour of wind power produced by this farm, 50 percent more than the average cost of electricity produced by coal. Zhang admits it will take 10 years for this wind farm to break even.

Back in a spotless control room, as we sit alongside blue-suited technicians monitoring the brand-spanking new computer system, he admits to another problem.

Mr. HUAYAO: (Through Translator) It's a beautiful day today, but there's no wind. There's very little wind at all.

LIM: Nature is unpredictable. Sometimes there's no wind. And other times, it's so strong, the turbines have to be shut down. To level out those peaks and troughs, backup power plants are being added. By 2020, new coal-fired power plants here in Jiuquan will have 13.6 million kilowatts of installed capacity -the same amount of energy as generated by the entire country of Chile this year.

The local economic planner, Wang Jianxin, chairman of the Jiuquan Development and Reform Commission, says adding more polluting coal-fired power plants is unavoidable if you want to be green.

Mr. WANG JIANXIN (Chairman, Jiuquan Development and Reform Commission): (Through Translator) There's no such thing as a free lunch. We're trying to get the best benefit for the lowest cost. But nothing happens without a sacrifice, and this is a necessary cost.

LIM: At the time of my visit, only four of the farm's wind turbines had been hooked up to the grid, though more are being added every day. According to Caijing, a bold business magazine, one-third of the wind power generated here in Yumen district is wasted.

In many parts of China, the transmission network can't cope with the rapid growth in renewable energy. But economic planner Wang Jianxin says these are just teething problems.

Mr. JIANXIN: (Through Translator) If someone who wanted to buy a car waited for roads to be built first, and road builders waited for enough cars to be bought before building a road, then nothing would ever happen. Here, sometimes the power stations are built faster than the grid. Sometimes the grid is built faster.

LIM: The local government will spend almost $1.5 billion in the next year, laying just 450 miles of ultra-high voltage cables that will eventually deliver the electricity to populated areas. This will be part of the world's first large-scale, ultra-high voltage grid. It's an investment that highlights China's green revolution, which Jonathan Woetzel has been charting for McKinsey Investments. He argues having turbines blowing aimlessly in the wind isn't necessarily wasted effort.

Mr. JONATHAN WOETZEL (McKinsey Investments): Not if your intent was to ensure that you built an industry. The intent of the government is also not only that these are farms that are built and operated, but they're also - that the equipment itself is Chinese-made and the technology is developed in China, and that ultimately it becomes a global industry, that China will become the exporters of wind technology to the world.

LIM: And to that end, China is succeeding. It's doubled its wind power capacity every year for the past five, this year adding more wind power than any other country. And it's on track to become the world's largest producer of wind turbines this year. Given the scale of its ambitions, the sky really is the limit.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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