The Wind & the Willows: Renewable Energy Development in Inner Mongolia
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by Alex Pennock
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to about two dozen towns, cities, and villages in China, and have found myself wondering what has been happening the years since I visited. In my last post I wrote broadly about rural access to electricity in China, and how my interest in the issue that grew out of a summer trip to the Chinese countryside. An earlier trip to Inner Mongolia to help with an anti-desertification project had a similar impact on me. Basically, I shoveled trenches for a few days, jabbed in some palm fronds meant to slow the wind a force it to drop the soil it had whisked up, and ate sheep stomach stew at night. Not too glamorous, but it exposed me another part of the world I’d never dreamed of seeing, and in looking into renewable energy development in Inner Mongolia today, I’m seeing even more change in the past decade than I thought possible.
China had a national goal of 5 gigawatts (GW, a million kilowatts) of wind by the end of 2010, a goal it blew past three years early. It reevaluated, shot for 10 GW by 2010, and by the time the year came they were at 25 GW. The same winds my futile plantings attempted to interrupt will undoubtedly sweep China even farther, as almost half of the wind resources in the country are concentrated in Inner Mongolia. In 2006, the province’s total installed wind capacity was half a GW; the first week of November 2010 this figure reached 8 GW (the 2020 goal for Inner Mongolia alone is 57 GW). The province’s current capacity falls not too far behind Texas, which led the U.S. with just under 10 GW at the start of 2010, and way out ahead of Iowa, the number two wind state with a measly 3 GW (nothing personal, Iowa readers).
In terms of individual wind facilities, a quick Googling reveals regular announcements of Chinese wind farms in the 500 MW range over the past year. In 2008, plans for a 1.9 GW facility were approved. These are BIG wind farms, worthy of all caps. Such developments are possible because of the resource quality, sparse populations, aggressive targets, and China’s 2005 Renewable Energy Law, which authorizes feed-in tariffs that provide such facilities with the equivalent of 7.5 cents (or more) per kWh.
Other forms of renewables have also sprung up in the desert. Biomass facilities have been developed in the wake of another anti-desertification campaign to plant sand willows. These bushes prevent erosion and grow back quickly when their branches are cut (with their roots left to retain soil), offering to slow sand encroachment on Beijing and to provide a rapidly regenerating fuel source that has a heat value similar to coal. At least one hybrid facility will use solar thermal technology to supplement biomass fuels, providing a consistent hybrid renewable power supply. Photovoltaic projects in the hundreds of MW have been announced, including First Solar’s 2 GW facility that will be built incrementally over the next 10 years.
There are definitely concerns with such rapid development. It has been estimated that 20% of the new wind capacity in Inner Mongolia has not been hooked up to transmission, which has yet to be built out, and so there is less electrical generation than it appears. Some also fear that quick development has come at the expense of materials and engineering quality, and that all of the development has added to desertification by damaging soil, kicking up dust, and installing roads.
I haven’t seen any analysis of whether these impacts are worse than having 7 GW+ of coal instead of these facilities, however, and in terms of water use there is likely a great benefit to the renewables boom versus fossil fuel development. What I like most about all this development, though, is that renewable energy is being used creatively to address many needs at once: combating desertification, providing 24-hour power through hybrid systems, providing income through renewables development in place of herding animals that denude the steppe and loosen soil, and building out the grid that will ultimately improve access to electricity. These impressive ancillary benefits are in addition to Inner Mongolia’s already incredible renewables fleet preventing emissions of over 35 billion pounds of CO2 annually.
My trench-digging efforts only helped avoid 34 billion pounds, so I will have to grudgingly relinquish my crown and watch as Inner Mongolian renewables continue to exceed expectations.
Alex Pennock is manager of Green-e Energy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.