Idling Wind Power Facilities: A Serious Issue Facing China’s Wind Sector

The average curtailment rate among wind power facilities across China remains a serious issue, at 17 percent, while full-year capacity of the idling facilities stood at 49.7 billion kWh for 2016, according to data from the China National Energy Administration. 

Curtailment rates in Gansu province, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Jilin province were up to 43 percent, 38 percent and 30 percent last year, respectively. The average across the country as a whole stood at 16 percent, while the capacity of idling wind power facilities reached 13.5 billion kWh in 1Q17. 

The figures are astonishing. In fact, such high levels of curtailment are not a one-off event. As early as 2011, curtailment across the country had already reached 12.3 billion kWh, and the rate had already reached 16 percent. Since then, the level of underutilization has only increased. For the seven years in total, 150 billion kWh went unused, resulting in direct financial losses of more than 80 billion yuan (approx. US$11.5 billion). Although China is not the sole country dealing with idling wind power facilities, its wind sector is hobbled by the some of the world’s highest levels of underutilization.

To cope with the issue, China has rolled out a series of measures since April 2010 including intensive surveys across the industry, research reports from professional institutions and the adoption of supportive policies by the energy authorities. However, the efforts have, to date, hardly made a dent.

Based on the results from numerous surveys and studies, power supply, power grid and load are three major factors leading to the vast underutilization of wind power facilities and PV systems. Distribution of the power sources is very uneven, with 77 percent of wind power facilities and 68 percent of the PV systems concentrated across China’s northern tier, yet the energy mix across the region remains dominated by coal.

China’s power mechanism is the basic reason behind the underutilization issue. Traditionally, China’s planned economy included management of the country’s power needs, with all aspects of power, including coal-based electricity generation and transmission, well planned in advance. This approach worked well before the emergence of wind power and PV systems-based electricity.

Electricity generation from wind and the PV systems that support it are subject to the vagaries of the weather. As a result, output and the output schedule are fully unpredictable. The planned economy that guides energy decisions in the country is unsuitable for the management of wind power and PV systems.

Development of clean energy has become a priority in China, in light of the high levels of air pollution that bedevil the country, especially the country’s North. The entire power industry has responded by starting to actively reduce underutilization. Traditional fossil fuel power plants and hydroelectric dams are making efforts to make room for clean energy. The country expects to soon see the first signs of a turnaround in dealing with the difficult issue of underutilization.

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Nanjing Shanglong Communications Liu Yuanyuan is Director of Operations and Co-Founder of Nanjing Shanglong Communications. Liu Yuanyuan previously held the position of office manager at the London Financial Times' China translation and editorial bureau in Nanjing overseeing 33 translators, editors and IT support personnel. Ms. Liu brought her many years experience of delivering, under deadline, more than 200 English-language news summaries of articles selected from Chinese-language newspapers and newswires daily as well as supervising the timely completion of 500,000+ word English-to-Chinese translation and localization projects to her role as co-founder and general manager at Shanglong. Ms. Liu joined Shanglong in 2002. In 2006, she added China Business News Service to the product suite – the service provides a continuous flow of well-researched and documented news articles to trade publishers and industry-specific websites looking to supplement their content with the latest news from China in their sector. She manages Shanglong's staff of translators, editors, desktop publishing specialists and support staff, selected from the top universities across China and well versed in the art of translation and in the technology of DTP. Ms. Liu graduated from the People’s Liberation Army Institute of International Relations - China’s elite military academy responsible for the training of the country’s foreign language specialists.

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