The answer to China’s energy challenges, as the song goes, may be blowin’ in the wind.
According to a new study from MIT, China has the opportunity to massively increase its use of wind power – if it can properly integrate wind into its existing power system.
Only 3 percent of China’s electricity demand was provided by wind power in 2015. The study forecasts that it could provide as much as 26 percent by 2030, which would be good news for the global effort to transition to renewable energy, since China produces the most total greenhouse gas emissions of any country in the world.
The promising projection comes with a counter-intuitive caveat, however. To make it happen, China should not put more wind turbines in its windiest places, but rather in places where they can more readily be integrated into the existing grid.
A “wind [turbine] that is built in distant, resource-rich areas benefits from more favorable physical properties but suffers from existing constraints on the operation of the power system,” said Valerie Karplus, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the Tsinghua-MIT China Energy and Climate Project. The constraints are higher transmission costs and the cost of “curtailment,” when available wind power is not used.
The study – Integrating Wind into China’s Coal-Heavy Electricity System – is in the current issue of Nature Energy and is co-authored by Karplus and students and professors at MIT and Tsinghua University who are part of an academic collaboration focused on tackling energy and climate issues in China. Co-existing with coal appears to be step one.
There’s no argument that China has been investing heavily in renewable energy in recent years, but still more is needed if the country is serious about meeting its pledged goal of having 20 percent of its energy consumption come from non-fossil fuels by 2030 – part of the Paris climate pact of 2015, the study says.
Plenty of studies have been made sizing up China’s wind-energy potential based on the country’s natural environment – its windiest valleys, plains and mountainsides. The new MIT study, however, is the first to take at look at how China’s wind energy production could expand based on simulations of its existing power system operations.
Taking the limitations of the operations into account, the MIT team found, China may only be able to use 10 percent of its physical potential for wind power. But even that 10 percent would be enough to surpass the 20 percent goal and reach 26 percent by 2030.
The key challenge, the team says, is integrating wind power into a system that has been geared to coal since day one. Coal can be tapped with the light of a match. But wind, by its very nature, is intermittent and sporadic, so any grid it ties into has to be flexible enough to accommodate its on-again-off-again contribution.
And that, in turn, requires flexibility from the coal-fired power plants, which accounted for more than 70 percent of electricity generated in China in 2015.
The study suggests that since China already has regulations setting minimum output levels for coal-powered plants (to ensure their profitability), reducing these thresholds and employing more flexible production schedules would open the door for more wind power.
“Renewable energy plays a central role in China’s efforts to address climate change and local air quality,” Da Zhang, a post-doc at MIT, explained. “China plans to substantially increase the amount of wind electricity capacity in the future, but its utilization – and ultimately its contribution to these environmental goals – depend on whether or not integration challenges can be solved.”
The researchers call for new policies but acknowledge the inherent challenges to implementing them. As co-author Michael R. Davidson put it: “Establishing regulatory structures and policy incentives to capture these benefits will be difficult in China because of legacy institutions.”
Karplus puts it another way: the regulations now in effect were designed to ensure profitability for power producers, not encourage them to compete to lower costs.
“Existing policies prioritize sharing benefits equally among participants rather than facing strict price competition,” she said. “As electricity demand growth has slowed in recent years, the limited size of the pie means sharper conflicts between wind and coal.”
Karplus pointed to government planners in China are experimenting with using energy markets that encourage competition and create additional markets for flexible operation. Such markets could be a boon to renewable energy, especially wind and solar.
For China to tap its wind capacity to the fullest, Karplus concluded, “our work shows the value of continuing these reforms, including introducing markets and relaxing administrative constraints.”
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