China’s first offshore wind farm, a 102-megawatt array that’s set to come to full power this month in the Yangtze River delta near Shanghai, looks to be the start of something big. Chinese officials announced plans last month to request bids for three to four large-scale offshore wind power projects generating up to 1,000 megawatts total. Beijing-based energy consultancy Azure International predicts that China will install 514 megawatts of offshore wind over the next three to four years, and by 2020 will have invested $100 billion to install up to 30,000 megawatts. That’s equal to all of the onshore wind farms currently installed in China, already the world’s largest market for wind power.
China’s offshore winds are slower than Europe’s because they cross Asia before striking out to sea, whereas the North Sea’s winds travel an unimpeded transatlantic path. But 40 percent of China’s population lives along the eastern seaboard. China is building a transmission supergrid to bring in hydroelectric, coal, and wind power from western China, but Meyer says leaders of coastal provinces see offshore development as a means of local investment. “China still has a very locally protectionist economy. There’s an interest from provincial governments to support the coastal economy and jobs by supporting a wind industry in their backyard,” says Sebastian Meyer, Azure’s research director.
The Chinese offshore wind situation is analogous to that in the United States, where eastern states advocate offshore wind over construction of an interstate supergrid delivering western wind power. For example, last week, Cape Wind, which has proposed a wind farm off Nantucket, announced it had ordered 130 turbines. The difference is that China’s first offshore wind farm, installed by top Chinese turbine producer Sinovel, is about to start generating electricity, whereas Cape Wind has been waiting for its federal permit since it gained state and local permits in 2008. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has promised a decision on Cape Wind by the end of this month. China’s National Energy Administration and National Oceanic Administration issued joint regulations for offshore wind farm development in January in a bid to accelerate the industry.
Li Junfeng, deputy director of China’s Energy Research Institute in Beijing, indicated in a presentation to an offshore wind seminar in Norway last month that near-term development would focus on the 100 to 200 gigawatts of wind energy potential available in extensive tidal flats. She highlighted Jiangsu Province, north of Shanghai, which has eight to 10 gigawatts of intertidal wind power potential. Jiangsu is the only coastal site among six regional wind power development centers designated by Beijing last year. Each site is slated to receive at least 10 gigawatts of installation by 2020.
Jiangsu’s first offshore pilot-scale farms are under construction: a 30-megawatt project by Longyuan Group and a six-megawatt project developed by Hebei-based China Three Gorges Project. In February, Beijing-based Shenhua Guohua Energy Investment, a subsidiary of China’s largest coal producer, announced it was considering two 300-megawatt offshore projects in Jiangsu that would use 3.6-megawatt turbines under development by Shanghai Electric Wind.
A key technical challenge is engineering for the tidal flat’s muddy seafloors and shifting sandbars, which require different foundations and installation vessels than those developed for the North Sea. Guohua, for example, is developing a novel steel pile foundation for its Jiangsu wind farms. Rather than the single steel monopoles common for North Sea projects, Guohua’s will employ five piles, each 56 meters long.