Clearing the air on Chinese clean energy

“It doesn’t matter what Australia does on climate change because China will just keep polluting regardless.”

It is surprising how often a statement like this turns up in the comments section of a news website or a panel-style TV show when the topic of climate change is raised. The argument is that China feels that it has more important things to worry about as it rapidly industrialises, and there is nothing we can do to force them to change.

Luckily it’s not true. I’ve seen first-hand how much China’s leaders and population care about cleaning up their energy system. And while that’s great news globally, it is also good news for Australian towns and workers who stand to gain from billions of dollars in new investment in wind energy from Chinese investors – if we don’t mess it up.

Recently I presented a session at the enormous China Wind conference in Beijing. It was one of the less smoggy days in the city, but there were several other days that week when the sun was reduced to a hazy glimmer and visibility was down to a few hundred metres.

Many Chinese are extremely concerned about air quality, and it’s not hard to understand why. Pollution readings are often more than 10 times what the World Health Organisation rates as ‘unacceptable’ and the poor air quality has been found to directly cause life-threatening illnesses such as lung cancer. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hundreds of factories were shut down to temporarily preserve the city’s air quality, but this is obviously not a long-term fix.  

Something had to give. China has set ambitious clean energy targets, has started to embrace energy efficiency and is considering introducing a price on carbon and a tax on coal mining as a way to reduce its reliance on coal-fired power.

On clean energy, China is building wind farms at a rate we Australians can barely get our heads around. According to the Global Wind Energy Council, last year China installed more than four times the amount of wind power we have in our entire country. In fact China’s total installed wind capacity is almost 30 times what we have here. And Australia’s 62 operating wind farms last year produced enough power for the equivalent of more than a million homes.

Wind turbine technology continues to improve and the Chinese are one of the countries driving the evolution of larger turbines and new offshore models. Sinovel installed China's first 6 megawatt prototype wind turbine two years ago, which can generate twice as much power as the largest onshore wind turbines in Australia. And, according to Sinovel’s vice president and technical director, a new 10 MW turbine design is nearly complete with funding from China's Ministry of Science and Technology. All this investment and development will have these machines export-ready in the short- or medium-term.

The rapid expansion of wind power in China has run into problems plugging into the grid in some areas. The windiest regions are in the sparsely-populated north and north-east, where the transmission lines are few and far between. The quality of the grid connection in these areas means that on very windy days, not all of the power generated by the wind farms can be put into the grid, and some is wasted. Although this is being worked on, it’s a serious issue and will take time.  

While the domestic market settles, China is extremely interested in investing in other countries such as Australia. On our visit to China, the Clean Energy Council met with huge equity investors like Guohua who own a majority stake in the Musselroe wind farm in Tasmania, and Trina Solar, one of the largest solar companies in the world.

The message from these huge players was always the same: When will Australian wind energy policy stabilise so that we can invest confidently? These financiers have the money and they’re ready to build and buy projects, but not while our Renewable Energy Target seems constantly under review. The acrimonious debate on the carbon price has also put off a lot of companies who see it as indicative of a wider attitude towards renewable energy.

Let’s clear the air here – wind power is just one small part of what China is doing to reduce both pollution and emissions, but they’re doing it fast and they’re doing it on a huge scale, with a goal of improving the quality of life of its citizens. They’re also keen to spread their successes globally, with new technology coming online and plenty of finances ready for those markets which can guarantee a stable investment environment.

Alicia Webb is a senior policy advisor at the Clean Energy Council.