Leaning into the Wind: Building Sustainable Wind Power in China

Abstract

In China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), the central government outlines ambitious targets for expanding domestic wind power generation. These targets are part of the government’s greater effort to reduce reliance upon thermal plants, which have produced unprecedented levels of pollution in recent years. As the world’s largest wind power collective, which is expected to reach 40 GW in capacity by 2020, the Jiuquan Wind Power Base serves as a paragon of China’s unbridled expansion into renewables. However, despite favorable tax policies, subsidies, and tariffs, most wind farms in Jiuquan have been unable to make a profit. This failure is largely a result of the intermittent nature of wind power, as well as inadequate grid infrastructure, which cannot deliver electricity generated from its remote location in the Gobi desert to high-demand cities on China’s east coast.

Our case study begins with a difficult question, placing the reader in the perspective of the National Energy Administration: Can large-scale renewable energy transition China toward a sustainable pattern of growth, fueling the needs of industry while reducing harmful pollution and the country's dependence on coal? Should the national government continue to promote and invest in the Jiuquan Wind Power Base, as well as similar megaprojects in the future, given these early-stage challenges? The National Energy Administration must make the right decision: the strength of its economy, the health of its people, and its international reputation are at stake.

As the case study progresses, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the challenges faced by the Jiuquan Wind Power Base, and the limitations of renewable energy at a large scale. In response to technical and financial difficulties, as well as the overabundance of wind farms, the national government has proposed an annual cap on wind turbine construction, and has considered building smaller wind turbines closer to cities, rather than siting their farms in remote high-wind intensity areas. Although China leads the world in investment in renewable energy, thermal generation continues to be the cheapest, most efficient source of baseload power in China.

This case study is part of a series of cases designed for the course "Case Studies in Sustainable Development" at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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