As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss climate change, much focus will be on China, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The country has unveiled new energy intensity targets and aims to have 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
So far, wind energy makes up just 0.4 percent of China's electricity supply. However, Beijing is building the world's biggest wind power project, although paradoxically, adding wind power in China also means adding new polluting coal-fired power stations.
The blades of a 20-story wind turbine slicing and chopping through the air are the only noise out here in China's western Gansu province. More than 100 Chinese-made turbines dot the bleak landscape. They call this the "Three Gorges on the Land," drawing parallels to China's gigantic hydroelectric project.
This is the first stage of a massive wind power complex, which will produce 12 times the amount of power of the world's current No. 1 — the Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas. In total, China will build seven of these mega-wind farms. In 2005, China produced just 1.28 gigawatts of wind power; just three years later, that figure was almost 10 times higher.
Zhang Huayao, an engineer who spent almost two years building this wind farm for China Energy Conservation Investment Corp., drives through the field of turbines with a proprietorial air. The project is in Yumen district of Jiuquan, in Gansu province. Like most of China's wind farms, it's far from the massive cities that need the electricity.
"It's tough building a new project," says Zhang. "But when I see my wind turbines turning, I feel very happy. Of course I'm proud. This is the first wind farm in the 10 gigawatt mega-project."
That sense of pride is shared by the locals, who are building roads to the wind farms. These sandy, snow-strewn wastelands bordering the Gobi desert are sparsely populated. So no people needed to be resettled and no land seized to build these wind farms. And the wind farms are bringing much-needed work — an estimated 6,000 jobs a year in this area.
Li Geping has a scarf wrapped around her face to guard against the freezing temperatures as she toils on the road. But she is happy to earn $8 a day, and she loves the wind turbines.
"Normally, there's no work here, but the wind farms have brought a lot of new jobs," she says, smiling. "This place is normally so barren and desolate. Now, the wind turbines are here. It's beautiful."
The government subsidizes wind power. As a result, it costs the government almost 8 cents for each kilowatt hour of power produced by the wind farm, about 50 percent more than the government pays for electricity produced by coal. Zhang says it will take 10 years for this wind farm to break even.
Back in a spotless control room where blue-suited technicians monitor the new computer system, he notes another issue.
"It's a beautiful day today, but there's no wind," he says, shaking his head. "There's very little wind at all."
Nature is unpredictable: Sometimes there is no wind; other times, it's so strong the turbines have to be shut down. Because China's transmission power grid can't cope with the intermittent nature of wind, the government is adding back-up coal-fired power plants along with wind power to level out those peaks and troughs.
In Jiuquan, new coal-fired power plants with 13.6 million kilowatts of installed capacity — the same amount of energy generated by Chile in 2009 — will be added by 2020. The need to add baseload coal-fired power plants has the effect of reducing the clean benefits of wind power.
But the local economic planner, Wang Jianxin, chairman of the Jiuquan Development and Reform Commission, says adding more polluting coal-fired power plants is unavoidable if you want to be green.
"There's no such thing as a free lunch. We're trying to get the best benefit for the lowest cost. But nothing happens without a sacrifice, and this is a necessary cost," Wang says.
During a recent visit, only four of the farm's wind turbines had been hooked up to the grid, though more are being added every day. According to Caijing, an influential business and investigative magazine, one-third of the wind power generated in Yumen district is wasted.
And that is typical, with just 72 percent of China's total wind power capacity connected to the grid, according to data from the China Electricity Council. In many parts of China, the transmission network can't cope with the rapid growth in renewable energy. But Wang, the economic planner, says these are just teething problems.
"If someone who wanted to buy a car waited for roads to be built first, and road builders waited for enough cars to be bought before building a road, then nothing would ever happen," says Wang. "Here, sometimes the power stations are built faster than the grid, sometimes the grid is built faster."
The local government will spend almost $1.5 billion in the next year, laying just 450 miles of ultra-high voltage cables that will eventually deliver the electricity to populated areas. This will be part of the world's first large-scale ultra-high voltage grid.
But Charlie McElwee, an energy and environmental lawyer based in Shanghai, says the modernization of the grid system won't solve all the problems immediately.
"There are still going to be issues with the intermittent nature of wind energy, and it's going to take 15 years or so until the grid itself is in a position to handle these intermittent power sources without these coal-fired power sources built in the same vicinity," he says.
Nonetheless, China is undergoing a green revolution, says Jonathan Woetzel of McKinsey, the consulting firm. He argues that having turbines blowing aimlessly in the wind isn't necessarily wasted effort — if your intent is to build an industry.
"The intent of the government is also not only that these farms are built and operated, but also that the equipment itself is Chinese-made and the technology is developed in China, and that ultimately it becomes a global industry, and that China will become the exporters of wind technology to the world," Woetzel says.
And to that end, China is succeeding. According to the Global Wind Energy Council, China has doubled its wind power capacity every year for the past five — this year adding more wind power than any other country — and it's on track to become the world's largest producer of wind turbines this year. Given the scale of China's ambitions, the sky really is the limit.