As proposed American offshore wind-farm projects creep forward -- slowed by state legislative debates, due diligence and environmental impact assessments -- China has leapt past the United States, installing its first offshore wind farm.
Several other farms also are already under construction, and even the Chinese government's ambitious targets seem low compared to industry dreaming.
"What the U.S. doesn't realize," said Peggy Liu, founder and chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, is that China "is going from manufacturing hub to the clean-tech laboratory of the world."
The first major offshore wind farm outside of Europe is located in the East China Sea, near Shanghai. The 102-megawatt Donghai Bridge Wind Farm began transmitting power to the national grid in July and signals a new direction for Chinese renewable energy projects and the initiation of a national policy focusing not just on wind power, but increasingly on the offshore variety.
Moreover, "it serves as a showcase of what the Chinese can do offshore ... and it's quite significant," said Rachel Enslow, a wind consultant and co-author of the report "China, Norway and Offshore Wind Development," published in March by Azure International for the World Wildlife Fund Norway.
Planned to strategically coincide with the World Expo in Shanghai, which is being fed electricity from the offshore farm, China is ready to show the world what its own homegrown wind technology can do.
All of Donghai Bridge's 34 turbines, 3 MW capacity each, were built by Sinovel Wind Group, China's largest wind turbine manufacturer, though designed in cooperation with American Superconductor. The Beijing-based company began building the farm at the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta in September 2008. CCCC Third Harbor Engineering Co. Ltd., also based in Beijing, installed the turbines, completing construction in February 2010. Shanghai's Zhongtian Technologies Submarine Optic Fiber Cable Co. Ltd. manufactured the 78 km of submarine cable.
Powering 200,000 households while reducing CO2
In China, one key challenge will be developing foundations for the soft seabed commonly found off the coast of the East China Sea, especially since "most offshore wind farms that will be developed in China will be intertidal," said Gerald Page, managing director of Equinox Energy Partners, a venture capital firm in Beijing.
The $337 million project, located 8 to 13 km (about 5 to 8 miles) from the coast, was erected on soft seabed conditions using a multi-pile foundation structure. About eight to 10 legs are placed on concrete piles, on top of which are stacked a concrete tack and then the turbines. Shanghai Investigation, Design and Research Institute conceived the foundation.
During low tide, the turbine foundations are exposed; during high tide, they become submerged in about 5 meters (16 feet) of water. Unlike in Europe, which is much more focused on developing deepwater (greater than 50 meters, or 164 feet, deep) turbine technology, China is exploring unique foundation technology and demonstrating innovative pursuits.
The farm is expected to eventually generate an annual 267 million kilowatt-hours of electricity -- enough to power 200,000 Shanghai households. China's government claims that annually, the wind farm will cut use of 100,000 tons of coal, reducing carbon emissions by 246,058 tons.
Currently, the wind farm's capacity is equivalent to only 1 percent of the city's total power production of about 18,200 MW, which is generated mostly from traditional fuel-based sources, according to China Daily, the state-run English-language daily newspaper in Beijing.
Construction of the Donghai project's second phase, on the west side of the bridge, has been approved by authorities. It, too, is projected to produce about 100 MW. An additional four farms surrounding Shanghai are currently under negotiation, and the city hopes to complete 13 wind farms by 2020, with the majority of the expected 1,000 MW capacity supplied by offshore wind farms.
An industry's itch to expand
The "Development Plan on Emerging Energies" released July 20 outlines wind production goals through 2020 by the Chinese government.
According to the plan, offshore wind power is expected to reach 30 gigawatts, and coastal provinces were required to start drafting offshore wind-grid implementation plans. This includes Liaoning, Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong provinces. In the next three to four years, according to the Azure-WWF report, in total, 514 MW should be installed along this coastline. As of March this year, pipelines accommodating 17 MW were already installed between Donghai and a pilot wind project in Bohai Bay near Tianjin.
The expected long-term cumulative pipeline, at 13.7 GW, is nearly halfway to the estimated 2020 goal, but this doesn't necessarily mean that the Mandarins are fully behind renewable technologies and warmly welcoming a greener future.
"The top-level people are cautiously optimistic," explained Andrew Grieve, a senior researcher at J Capital Research, an equities research company based in Beijing. "They are far more optimistic on the local and provincial level."
Behind closed doors, industry insiders hear buzz and speculation that coastal provinces' plans far exceed the existing Chinese central government's plans.
Grieve stressed that the real force for wind comes from manufacturers that are itching to expand the market. "Comparatively speaking," he said, "the central government is the most conservative of the lot."
All this is without official numbers, as the 12th Five-Year Plan (for the 2011-2015 time period) has still not been formally unveiled. It remains in final draft form, and though the original release date was slated for March, approval keeps moving backward. Analysts expect the implementation date should, at the latest, arrive on Jan. 1, 2011.
The central government's aim was to hit 10 GW by 2010, a goal that was quickly surpassed.
"Industry is either going to take their number and beat it, or government is going to have to step in and calm down growth," Grieve said. Rumors support the latter, but given historical trends, the former would seem more likely.
The Azure-WWF report describes the offshore wind energy generation potential in China as huge -- calculated as 11,000 terawatt-hours, similar to that of the North Sea in western Europe.
"China has the largest wind resources in the world, and three-quarters of them are offshore," Barbara Finamore, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Beijing office, told Scientific American.
The existing industry is nowhere near that large. As Grieve explained, "apart from the 1 gigawatt of bids this year, there are no central government national targets for offshore wind, although possible national targets of 5 gigawatts by 2015 and 30 gigawatts by 2020 have been suggested." The provincial government-proposed provincial offshore development plans amount to 10.2 GW by 2015 and 22.7 GW by 2020.
The growth in China's wind manufacturing market remains focused on the domestic market -- for now. Dheeraj Choudhary, who runs Parker Hannifin Corp.'s Global Renewable Energy business unit, said "60 to 70 percent of wind turbine market growth has come from domestic manufacturers, and not the international guys."
Joanna Lewis, an assistant professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University who works as a China program adviser to the Energy Foundation, agreed: "No one has nearly as much capacity [as China] installed in the world." As a result, there is still "very strong demand for wind turbines in China, and they're not at stage where supply exceeds demand."
Eyeing markets abroad
Talk to wind turbine and technology experts and manufacturers, and they see a day not too far off when Chinese-produced (and in some cases, Chinese-invented) turbines will service foreign markets.
Anthony Fullelove, project manager for North Brown Hill Wind Farm, based in Sydney, Australia, expects that his country, as well as Europe and the United States, will see a sharp increase in turbines sourced from China -- as the technology rises to meet global standards and prices drop -- to make wind farms viable especially in a generation sector without a carbon price.
"Turbine manufacturers in China are starting to look for markets abroad upon seeing Chinese market getting tighter and tighter, with more companies selling in China," Lewis added.
For the time being, Chinese manufacturers still work hand in hand with foreign engineers and designers. But that is starting to shift.
"Reliance is much lower," noted Choudhary. Instead, Chinese manufacturers look to foreign companies to provide subsystems and components. All of China's top five turbine manufacturers have worked with foreign engineers yet retained the intellectual property rights on the technologies.
Meanwhile, as China moves forward with installing water-based wind farms as well as developing its domestic technological know-how, not a single offshore wind turbine is in use in the United States.
Though the 130-turbine Cape Wind project, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts, has received federal approval, several potential regulatory and judicial hurdles lurk. Similarly, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission recently approved a power purchase agreement proposed for the Block Island farm off of Rhode Island, which would start with an initial eight turbines as a model, yet Attorney General Patrick Lynch (D) has vowed to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
When discussing the creation of an Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium in February, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it currently takes seven to nine years for offshore wind project to receive approval. At this point, Cape Wind is moving into its 10th year of negotiations.
In comparison, China's Renewable Energy Law was implemented in January 2006. By November 2007, the Bohai model turbine was installed. So important was the Donghai farm to the Chinese Communist Party, it footed the bill to ensure the project would be completed in time for Expo 2010 in Shanghai, during which time China has the eyes of the whole world watching.