GUANGZHOU, China—China, already a world leader in the widespread use of solar water heaters, is starting to push hard into harnessing wind energy.
As air pollution chokes much of the country and soaring crude oil prices bite into state finances, authorities are sharply raising their targets for the use of renewable energy, particularly from wind farms.
Last month, authorities gave a massive kick-start to wind energy by raising the target for the overall share of renewable energy in the nation's power mix to 15 percent by 2020, up from 10 percent.
A significant chunk of that will come from wind farms. And as Chinese firms move in a big way to produce cheap wind turbines to satisfy domestic demand, they're forcing turbine prices down in other countries.
"With the development of wind turbine technology in China, the price is already falling worldwide. The price has come down about 20 percent," said Deng Yuanchang, deputy director of the Wind Resource Research Center at Sun Yat-sen University in this southern Guangdong Province city along the Pearl River Delta.
Some 43 wind farms now dot the Chinese countryside, producing less than 1 gigawatt of power and providing only 0.17 percent of China's energy needs. But new targets call for obtaining 6 gigawatts of power from wind energy by 2010, and 30 gigawatts by 2020, a boost that would leapfrog China to nearly twice the level of the installed capacity of the current world leader, Germany.
Experts see Guangdong province, which surrounds the southern city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) as a good proving ground. Guangdong has high energy prices, frequent blackouts and 83 million people.
"The wind conditions are very similar to those of Germany, and you know that Germany is the biggest wind market in the world," said Yang Ailun, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace, the worldwide environmental advocacy group.
While some energy analysts dismiss China's renewable energy goals as wishful thinking, others don't discount China's ambitions.
"There are big companies that want to invest in wind farms," said Arthouros Zervos, the president of the European Renewable Energy Council, a trade group.
Once the government establishes nationwide rates at which wind energy can be sold, within the next few months, investment could pour in and progress could be made quickly.
"It's not like nuclear power, where from the time you make a decision to the point you have a plant, it can take five years. A wind farm takes one year," Zervos said.
"Wind energy is very capital intensive at the beginning," added Yang. "About 70 percent of the cost of the wind farm is purchase of the turbines."
As soon as rates are set for wind-generated energy, investors will move in to build wind farms and even possibly set some up offshore, she said.
Electricity from wind farms still costs more than energy from coal-fired power plants, but Li Junfeng, the director of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, a trade group, said he believes that wind energy will drop in price as coal becomes less abundant by 2020 and officials scramble to deal with air pollution.
"They (officials) know they need clean energies," Li said.
China already has vast experience in some renewable energy fields, particularly solar energy systems. The nation currently has 50 million solar water heaters in use, mostly on rural housetops, claiming more than half the global market for such devices.
Li said he believes that by 2020, 150 million Chinese households will have solar heaters.
"The solar water heater is very popular in my village now. You know, all my friends have bought it," said Chen Feng, an accountant from Xuzhou in coastal Jiangsu province. "We now have hot water every day unless it rains continuously."
For higher-end solar technology, such as photovoltaic cells, Li said China still has "a long way to go. We need new technology. We need more money for research."
But Li said he's certain that within several decades, "China will be a world leader in renewable energies."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-ENERGY
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051215 CHINA ENERGY
Need to map