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China Has Way More Turbines, but US Is Still Tops in Wind Energy

Yes, China is using less coal, thanks in part to rapid expansion of renewables, as news reports today trumpeted, and Greenpeace reckons that led to a decline in CO2 emissions of 1 to 2 percent in 2015. But the country could be doing even better if it put its world-leading wind capacity to better use.

This fact was highlighted today when the American Wind Energy Association noted that in 2015, the U.S. remained the world’s top producer of wind energy.

This is startling given that China installed a staggering 23 gigawatts of wind power in 2014, then outdid itself last year by adding another 30 GW, driving total installed wind capacity to 145 GW, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. That’s nearly double the 74 GW that the U.S. had at the end of 2015.

Yet the U.S. wind fleet beat China’s in energy generation, 191 terawatt-hours to 185 TWh.

china-us wind cap-gen

AWEA highlighted this gap two years ago, when the U.S. was at 61 GW of capacity and 168 TWh of generation and China was at 91 GW/136 TWh. China’s Achilles’ heel then was curtailment, the term for shutting down tubines because there’s no way to get the power to users on a congested transmission system. The situation apparently hasn’t improved. Earlier this month, the China Electricity Council talked (as translated by Google) about how “abandoning the wind” and “discarding light” – a reference to solar power – continue to be problems in particular provinces.

AWEA credited the U.S. edge to “strong wind resources and production-based U.S. policy (that) have helped build some of the most productive wind farms in the world.” It also noted that “upgraded transmission infrastructure in the U.S. also helps relieve congestion and bring more low-cost wind energy to the most densely populated parts of the country.”

Meanwhile, in China, curtailment knocked 15 percent off China’s wind generation in the first half of 2015, and the rate was 20 percent in western Inner Mongolia and 31 percent in Gansu, according to an October Reuters article. In those regions particularly, the transmission lines are inadequate and there’s not enough demand for the energy locally. Reuters said national authorities were trying to encourage those regions “to attract more energy-intensive industries from China’s east, helping to better absorb the supply of renewable energy locally.”

Sounds like a long-term project.

China has also been reducing the guaranteed payments or “feed-in tariff” for new wind projects, especially in the impacted regions. Wind Power Monthly reported in January that “the change is aimed at directing the onshore wind sector towards healthy and orderly development, for balancing the growth of new energies in various regions, and for enhancing the efficiency of renewable power subsidy payout.”

Curtailment is sometimes an issue in the United States, but a declining one. Although there hasn’t really been a big national commitment to build new and better transmission, regional efforts have paid off. A federal report last fall noted that ERCOT, which oversees the wind-heavy Texas grid, saw wind curtailment fall from 17 percent in 2009 to 1.2 percent in 2013. “Primary causes for the decrease were the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone transmission line upgrades, most of which were completed by the end of 2013, and a move to more-efficient wholesale electric market designs,” the report said.

Bruce Hamilton, an analyst at Navigant, said the fact that “the U.S. has such a great wind resource” could also be a factor in getting more bang for its buck out of wind. Plus, “the technology in the U.S. is the latest and greatest, and I’m not sure that’s the case in China, where they could be a generation behind.”

The U.S. lead over China might have been even greater in 2015 were in not for a strange U.S. wind drought, particularly in the West, in the first half of the year. From January through June, generation was down 5.6 TWh from the year before, despite increased capacity. The pattern changed in the second half of the year, and from July through December generation was up 14.8 TWh over that same period in 2014.