In China, local officials are in such a hurry to implement the central government's new renewable energy policies that some projects are going up with too little planning.
Some of the massive wind farms being built in parts of northwest China, for example, are in arid regions where they will be exposed to quick erosion by sand and dust. Their expensive turbines will need to be replaced far earlier than the usual 20- to 30-year life spans, and the necessary transmissions lines to carry their renewable power aren't always in place. In fact, adverse conditions for turbines are found in three of the five provinces where large wind projects have been implemented: Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Gansu.
Ministry of Industry Information and Technology Vice Minister Miao Wei recently went so far as to call a $17.6 billion wind farm currently under construction in Gansu province an "image project" and an inefficient use of government resources because of the erosion danger.
This comes as no surprise to water management researcher Reut Barak, who says that China suffers from an "implementation gap." The gap, she says, is "the difficulty to implement policies that the central government designs." In this case, it's the central government's goal to have 15 percent of China's power come from renewable sources by 2020.
Barak spent time in Guangxi in southern China in 2007 helping a local official broker renewable energy projects. She explains that there was a "very clear distinction" that the "central government feels it's responsible for traditional forms of energy ... and the local government would be the ones left to do whatever they want in terms of renewable energy." Money to support the project might be forthcoming from the central government, depending upon the expected return on investment. But more often than not, local officials must find the financing themselves, and that can lead to cutting corners.
The central government hands down policies for local governments to implement. Local officials are responsible in a hierarchical framework to the official directly above them, and they and their provinces are rewarded based, first and foremost, upon China's GDP growth.
Given the high priority to increase renewable dependency and decrease carbon-intensity, officials are increasingly under pressure to add renewable energy resources. In fact, in 2009, China overtook the United States as the largest investor in clean energy, putting $34.6 billion in low-carbon technologies, almost twice the U.S. investment, according to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts.
While it's true that when Beijing speaks, local officials snap to, however, they don't always take enough time to study the details.
Cheng explains that while China has some sustainability research institutes, they are few and far between. The result is that China still lacks a standardized system for sustainable projects. There is not the understanding at the local level needed to assess a renewable energy project, where the lowest price tag isn't necessarily the best buy.
"Without knowing if it's sustainable, it wastes a lot of money, and it wastes a lot of investment, which this money can be used in very effective ways otherwise," Cheng says.
The lack of top-down planning is partially deliberate, he says. The Chinese government is leaving enough leeway for local governments and companies to come up with innovative solutions to problems. In economic development discourse, this approach usually works better; As stakeholders are more involved in the development process, it ensures better outcomes. However, there must be an underlying process of standardization and education that the Chinese are realizing is necessary before innovation can be realized.
Bridging the Capacity Gap
Groups like iCET, the Climate Group and BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) are working with local governments to improve their understanding of renewable energy project design. China is the world's No. 3 wind power producer, behind the U.S.
and Germany, and it is becoming aware of the sustainability challenges in
its green development. The need to alter implementation strategy featured in debate at the National People's Congress this month, as well.
Cheng is careful to say that a project assessment process exactly like that of the United States will not be the goal for China, as he sees it as slightly cumbersome in terms of the amount of paper work and time it takes to change things.
With the environmental challenges currently facing China, the country cannot afford to wait.