By: Shanshan Li and Yidong Gong


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[BEIJING] China, the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter, could generate all its electricity from wind power by 2030, even though its energy demands will have doubled by then, researchers claimed today (11 September).

By investing in enough wind farms to cover 0.5 million square kilometres — equivalent to three-quarters of the area of Texas — China could eliminate almost all of the emissions from its power sector, say Chinese and US scientists from Tsinghua and Harvard universities, writing in Science.

They used meteorological data and economic models of China's energy sector to demonstrate that wind could provide seven times the amount of energy used in China at present — up to 24.7 petawatt hours (24.7 quadrillion watt hours) a year .

The calculation is based on recent laws that encourage the development of renewable energy in China and a guaranteed price of 7.6 US cents per kilowatt hour of electricity for the next ten years.

The cost would be US$900 billion over the next 20 years.

In 2007, China issued a blueprint for renewable energy that raises its share from 7.5 per cent in 2005 to 15 per cent in 2030. But at present, coal-fired power plants account for about 80 per cent of total electricity generation, while wind power contributes just 0.4 per cent.

According to the researchers, by 2030 China's growing energy demand will need 800 gigawatts more from new coal-fired power plants, which would emit an extra 3.5 gigatonnes  of carbon dioxide annually.

"Compared with other renewable energies such as hydropower and solar, wind power has the advantages of lower cost, mature technology and good safety," Wang Yuxuan, an environmental scientist at Tsinghua University and co-author of the paper, told SciDev.Net.

Wang and her colleagues believe that the farms should be in north and west China, which have plenty of space and wind.

But Shi Pengfei, vice chairman of the Chinese Wind Energy Association, says: "Wind resources in China are rich, I agree. But using them is not as easy as the scientists imagine."

Wind resources and power-hungry industrial areas are not in the same place, so new transmission infrastructure would be needed and the existing grid is not designed to cope with electricity from fluctuating sources such as wind, he says.

The researchers also propose the less ambitious goal of replacing nearly a quarter of the electricity generated from coal with wind. This would cost about six US cents per kilowatt hour.

But critics doubt that even the more modest target could be reached. "It still looks unbelievable and will not persuade policymakers," observes Li Junfeng, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute, National Development and Reform Commission, a top policy-making body in China.

Link to full paper in Science