Barren, windy stretches of the Tibetan plateau and grasslands in northeastern China hold untapped value in a country searching for more energy and cleaner air.
China, the biggest polluter from burning fossil fuels, has enough wind-energy potential to generate seven times its current power consumption, said Michael McElroy, a researcher at Harvard University. To develop that capacity and meet rising demand would cost about $900 billion, he wrote in a study published in Science.
The world's largest coal-burning nation increased carbon-dioxide discharges by more than all other nations combined and aims to offset that growth by boosting wind power fivefold by 2020. The Harvard study of meteorological data highlights opportunities for wind-turbine makers such as General Electric Co., Vestas Wind Systems A/S and Gamesa SA that are expanding in the U.S. and China, the fastest growing markets for wind power.
"The world is struggling with the question of how do you make the switch from carbon-rich fuels to something carbon-free," McElroy said in the paper. "The real question for the globe is: What alternatives does China have?"
Harnessing all of its potential wind power would require investments in turbines equal to about 50 percent more than China's 4 trillion-yuan ($586 billion) economic package that includes money for renewable-energy projects.
China is expanding renewable energy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, which accounts for 80 percent of its electricity production and releases more greenhouse gases such as CO2 than the other major fuels used worldwide.
Electricity from the wind currently accounts for about 0.4 percent of China's total generation, the study said. The expansion of wind power is already under way in China and the nation will likely usurp the U.S.'s position this year as the largest market for devices that harness the wind, according to Germany's VDMA Power Systems, a manufacturers group that represents turbine makers.
The scientists measured wind speeds using surface observations, aircraft, balloons, buoys and satellites over a five-year interval to account for annual changes. They excluded urban, forested and steeply sloping areas.
Wind turbines now operating in China are turning only 23 percent of the time compared with 35 percent in the U.S. because of lower quality equipment, limitations by the electricity grid and not having the windmills in the best locations, the authors said. Turbines installed in the windiest areas generating electricity only 20 percent of the time would be sufficient to generate enough power to meet growing demands by 2030.
More wind power would lead to cleaner air and lower health-care costs, which already cost as much as 4.3 percent of gross domestic product, the researchers said.
China adds 50 gigawatts, or the equivalent of 50 large coal-fired power plants, of new electricity generation each year, with demand rising 10 percent annually in the coming years, McElroy and colleagues said.
New coal plants come into operation each year in the country, which is balking at the cost and effectiveness of extracting CO2 from the existing coal-burning generators and storing it underground in order to lower carbon output, Su Wei, director-general of the climate-change unit at China's National Development and Reform Commission, said on Aug. 4.
The country can achieve larger emissions cuts instead by spending money improving the energy efficiency of buildings and vehicles and investing in wind and solar, he said at the time.
By Jeremy van Loon