Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT
Infrastructure projects in China seem to pop up every day. For renewable energy, China's western reaches like Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are natural heartlands for the country's wind revolution.
However, the installed capacity has not been met by grid extensions. In 2016, regulators suspended new wind projects in six provinces due to the need for increased grid coverage.
In the last year, however, this has not materialized to the extent needed. Furthermore, China does not simply need new electrical lines. Power stations have to be converted for intermittent coverage, areas with wind potential must be prioritized but not overcrowded and the dawn of hybrid renewable power plants spells the need for future technological innovation.
The amount of generating infrastructure that needs to be put into place is a real challenge. In April 2016, State Grid made an ambitious proposal for a global network joining together various renewable sources around the globe. Aiming for a start in 2050, the grid would first focus "on long-range interconnection domestically and on developing battery and other technology needed for better transmission of renewable power resources," according to the Wall Street Journal.
After this initial phase, the plan seeks to have China's grid "connected with others, starting with northeast Asian neighbors like Mongolia and South Korea."
While undeniably forward-thinking, it seems that some in China feel that State Gird should focus on domestic developments before extending its ambitions abroad. A previous plan outlined by State Grid was to build ultra-high voltage (UHV) lines and a smart grid to cut China's coal consumption by 25 percent by 2020. Roundly dismissed as difficult to achieve by critics and frowned upon by coal-producing states, this plan was never formally greenlit by Beijing.
The plan would involve stretching 12 lines across the country to link up resources such as wind parks in northwest China with coastal provinces. But while State Grid estimates the investment would cost 210 billion yuan ($33.7 billion), external estimates fear it could cost up to three times that before 2020.
This lackluster progress may seem surprising for China. After all, express train tracks snake their way through the Himalayas and buildings can be erected in a matter of weeks. Yet this task is more than about pure application of labor and capital.
China's grids are fairly disparate, with few to no interconnections as many operate on their own, powered by their own plants. However, accessing the wind power of its remoter regions is vital in order to wean urban areas off choking pollutant fuels.
This is made all the more urgent by Beijing's decision to begin winding down coal production, most notably in Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Xinjiang. The government has clearly identified the western provinces as needing to pick up the slack, especially since infrastructure development would have less impact on the population.
"Utilization of the UHV lines remains below expectations [due to] many factors … such as the performance of connected generation plants, constraints in the local power grids, [hydro power resource] conditions, as well as [power] demand conditions," South China Morning Post said in an article in February 2016, citing Hu Xinmin, senior manager at industry consultancy The Lantau Group.
Even their developments in other parts of China have not gone fully to plan. Hu noted that China's first three UHV lines, operating from 2012, had only reached capacity of between 21-56 percent by 2014.
The problem is that China does not have much of an alternative. State Grid's expansion plan calls for the country's grid of high-voltage lines to grow from 5.5 million km in 2014 to 6.8 million by 2020. While this increase may not seem that large, it would mean that China would account for 48 percent of forecasted electrical grid growth among the 10 largest countries in the world, says GlobalData.
Alongside this, China's power generation capacity is expected to rise 51 percent in that same period, from 1,371 gigawatts in 2014 to 2,073 gigawatts in 2020.
Industrial objections, concerns about budgeting and questions about China's proper industrial balance will all be raised and rightfully so. But if China wishes to continue being seen as a world leader in clean energy sources, and also relieving its citizens from crippling pollution, State Grid needs to start building.
The author is a Mexico-based analyst of Chinese politics and economics. firstname.lastname@example.org