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Dabancheng wind farm’s location in a natural wind tunnel in China’s Xinjiang province makes it one of the best situated in the world. It is also a showcase for the turbine manufacturer Goldwind, which became the largest supplier in the world after installing so much turbine capacity in 2015 that it overtook Vestas of Denmark.
Wu Gang, Goldwind’s founder and chairman, sweeps his hands gracefully to show how the wind courses through the narrow corridor between the Junggar basin and the Taklamakan desert, where Marco Polo wrote of hearing the voice of a genie calling from the whirlwinds.
Today more than 300 towers rise from the dusty desert floor, churned by that constant wind. Dabancheng is an engineer’s heaven, studded with prototypes of nearly every generation of turbine technology, both Chinese-made and foreign. “I joke when I’m in Europe — I tell young people who want to know the history of European windpower technology to come to Dabancheng,” Mr Wu says.
Whether or not those young enthusiasts make the trip, Goldwind is coming to them. Last year, China accounted for half the world’s wind power installation. It now has a third of the world’s total wind power generation capacity.
Goldwind is not the only company on the rise: five of the top 10 wind turbine manufacturers are Chinese according to FTI Consulting, a business advisory firm. Many cut their teeth in a protected market, after local rules effectively locked many foreign turbine manufacturers out of the Chinese market. Saturation in the domestic market now means that Goldwind and its fellow Chinese producers are looking to compete overseas. Pressure from Chinese exports is already fuelling a round of consolidation among established European players. Siemens of Germany, for example, is in talks to buy Spanish turbine maker Gamesa.
At home in Xinjiang province, Goldwind’s home market, wind power capacity doubled in 2015, reaching 26 per cent of the region’s total power generation capacity. However, a bottleneck in transmission lines out of the region means that almost half its installed wind power went unused in the first quarter of 2016.
“Xinjiang is pretty much maxed out in terms of installed wind capacity,” says Sebastian Meyer, research director for renewable energy consultancy Azure International.
To maintain its position as the world’s largest wind turbine supplier Goldwind will have to increase sales in other Chinese provinces, notorious for their local protectionism, where it will also have to compete directly with its domestic rivals Guodian, Ming Yang and CSIC. Meanwhile curtailment — the amount of installed wind power capacity not being used by the grid — is rising, as provinces race to meet Beijing’s renewable energy targets.
Mr Wu remembers the 1980s as an era of international wind power co-operation. He became fascinated by the potential for wind power while working on an experimental project in Xinjiang funded by the Dutch government. That experimental farm is now Dabancheng.
He is quick to point out that being big in China does not necessarily translate into strength overseas. “We are number one in the world in terms of market share, but we are well aware that we still lag behind multinationals like Siemens, GE and Vestas,” he says.
“Take Vestas. Their products are sold in more than 30 countries. Ours are only sold in 17 countries. This is a gap. As a Chinese company, we lag far behind our foreign competitors in internationalisation.”
But Goldwind is catching up. It hires local sales and installation teams overseas and also finances wind farms to sell to power producers after they are up and running.
Listed in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, the company has powerful backers, including state-owned dam builder China Three Gorges Corp and insurer Anbang Group, which has made a string of aggressive acquisitions over the past year. Most of Goldwind’s technology is licensed from Germany’s Vensys, although Goldwind has made alterations to the original designs.
Mr Wu says Goldwind’s real competitor is not other wind power producers but coal. Currently, wind power generation in the north of China (home to strong and regular winds) costs slightly less than thermal power generation in the south, where coal is more expensive and emissions standards are stricter. However, coal is cheapest in Xinjiang and northern China, leaving wind power at a disadvantage in its most favourable region.
Further technological improvements and increased economies of scale could help to narrow the gap, Mr Wu believes. “Our competitors are not the foreign companies,” he says, citing UN goals that non-fossil energy should represent 85 per cent of primary energy consumption globally by 2050. “Thermal power is competing with us. The competition between wind and fossil energy is far greater than the competition within the wind industry.”
Additional reporting by Luna Lin