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"the Three Gorges Dam Of The Sky"

The Guardian has a nice article today on China's roaring wind industry, which, like just about everything else in China, is growing faster than anyone thought possible:

It is a spectacular sight: fields of spinning blades harvesting energy and transforming it into electricity for the nearby city of Urumqi. A few years ago, this was the only wind farm of such a size in China. But now, bigger facilities have been built or are under construction in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Jiangsu. Since 2005, the country's wind generation capacity has increased by more than 100% a year. The government's renewable energy policy aims to procure 15% of the country's energy from non-carbon sources by 2020, twice the proportion of 2005.

This year, policymakers had to double their wind power prediction for 2010, having reached the old goal of 5 gigawatts three years ahead of schedule. On current trends, it will almost definitely have to be doubled again.

No question, coal's still the reigning energy heavyweight in China, supplying about 70 percent of the country's energy needs, compared with 1 percent for wind. Two new coal plants, on average, pop up each week, a fact that gives most greens cold sweats, since all the carbon caps in the Western hemisphere won't mean squat if that pace doesn't slow. The flip side, though, as I noted in a recent piece on China for our print mag, is that the central government in Beijing really is serious about tackling the problem—and aggressive renewable-energy policies are a major part of that strategy.

Even more importantly, market forces are starting to work in wind's favor: The price of coal in China has been going up of late, thanks to (somewhat) stricter safety regulations in the mines and rising demand—the oil-price surge is making it pricier to import coal from places like Australia. Those costs have gouged China's major utilities this year. Some Chinese experts now think wind power will be competing with coal as early as 2015, which would be a huge turning point. The most optimistic projections—coming from Greenpeace—see wind turbines making up 10 percent of China's installed capacity by 2020.

One Chinese energy expert recently told me that the biggest chokepoint, right now, is figuring out a rational scheme for building all those new transmission lines—wind-farm owners don't want to pay for them, and the local grid company often either won't have planned for them or won't want to build lines for a small 100 MW farm. These problems aren't unique: It took Germany and Denmark years to figure them out, and even Texas is just now shelling out $5 billion to address the transmission issue. Once China sorts that out, the upside for wind looks enormous.

--Bradford Plumer