Wind power alone can potentially allow China to reduce emissions by 30 percent in about twenty years, according to a prominent science magazine today.
In Science magazine's cover story, issued today, a team of environmental scientists from Harvard and Tsinghua universities analyzed China's wind resources and concluded that if the nation meets 30 percent of its increase in electricity demand with wind power by 2030, it will be enough for the nation to realize a low-carbon future.
China has become second only to the US in its national power generating capacity. It produces 792.5 gigawatts per year with an expected 10 percent annual increase in the future. Close to 80 percent of its power is produced through coal-making, making China and the US as the world's two largest carbon emitters.
To meet the increased demand for electricity during the next 20 years with fossil fuel-based energy sources, China would have to construct coal-fired power plants that could produce the equivalent of 800 gigawatts of electricity, resulting in a potential increase of 3.5 gigatons of CO2 per year.
"By publicizing the opportunity for a different way to go we will hope to have a positive influence," said lead author Michael B. McElroy, Gilbert Butler professor of environmental studies at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The authors said the report was fueled by the Chinese government's support for a low-carbon future after it passed the Renewable Energy Law in 2005.
The law, which provides favorable tax status for alternative energy investments, has boosted the development of renewable energy, especially wind.
While wind-generated energy accounts for only 0.4 percent of China's total current electricity supply, the nation is rapidly becoming the world's fastest growing market for wind power, trailing only the US, Germany and Spain in the capacity of existing wind farms.
Based on extensive metrological data, the scientists' report concluded that wind energy in China has a potential to provide as much as 24.7 petawatt-hours of electricity supply annually - more than seven times China's current consumption.
The research team evaluated the total potential for wind energy that could be realized at an affordable cost level, which would require installation of 640 GW of wind farms over the coming 20-year period.
Their analysis would theoretically require China to make an investment of around $900 billion (at current prices) over the same twenty-year period.
The scientists consider this a large but not unreasonable investment given the present size of the Chinese economy (annual GDP of about $4.42 trillion in 2008). But whatever the energy source, China will need to build and support an expanded energy grid to accommodate the anticipated growth in power demand.
Ma Xuelu, vice-director of Chinese Wind Association, said he is not surprised by the wind energy potential estimated by the report.
"When it comes to wind energy in China, it is actually not much a question about how willing the government would invest in wind energy, rather about how the government should ensure that such investment will achieve long-term benefits," said Ma.
Wind energy is developing so rapidly in China that Ma is calling on the government and the industry to consider a systemized rather than hasty approach.
"Wind energy is an industry that requires investment in various fields, ranging from material, technology, talents, standard setting and construction of service system. It's impact on environment is also an important issue to consider," said Ma. "However, so far we tend to focus mainly on facility manufacturing. Such an imbalance, if unaddressed, could greatly undermine the country's efforts developing wind energy."