In this excerpt from his book The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, Mark L. Clifford tells the tale of the inspiration sparked by the impromptu introduction of wind power to China and foreshadows the implications for China’s future in green energy.
The story of Goldwind and its founder, Wu Gang, is remarkable even in a country filled with extraordinary tales. Wu, a 1983 graduate of Urumqi’s Xinjiang Engineering Institute, was born in 1958, making him a teenager during the upheaval of China’s Cultural Revolution. Like so many other young people at the time, he was sent to spend two years in a remote village, the last six months of which he spent teaching English to middle school students just a few years younger than he was. Wu worked late into the night on his own English studies and the next day taught what he’d just learned—an experience that even three decades later he remembers as nerve-wracking. His English skills were crucial to him in his later work with Goldwind, allowing him to get the most out of visits by foreign scholars and wind industry representatives.
Wu’s journey toward Goldwind started while he was teaching at a technical college in his hometown of Urumqi and suddenly had, as he says, “a sense of crisis.” Wu felt that if he continued teaching, he would squander his life. “I had to find a new challenge,” he remembers. It was the mid-1980s, and the excitement of the Deng Xiaoping reforms was sweeping China. “My major was power, and I was looking for the future energy source.” As an engineer, he says, “I focused on technology.”
He wasn’t the only one with this focus. In 1985, the Xinjiang provincial government’s wind research program teamed up with the country’s Ministry of Water Resources to organize a delegation to Britain, Germany, and Denmark. In one of those serendipitous events that could have been a boondoggle but turned out to be a brilliant inspiration, the delegation decided, on the spot, to buy a Danish wind turbine to bring back to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Few cities in China are deeper in the interior, or more remote physically and culturally, than Urumqi. Midway between the Iranian capital of Tehran and the Chinese capital of Beijing, Xinjiang is where China becomes Central Asia. It is an almost unimaginably harsh region, one where the Gobi and Taklimakan Deserts meet. Muslim Uighurs outnumber Han Chinese, although Xinjiang does not have many people. What Xinjiang has, in abundance, is wind.
Xinjiang Wind Energy, one of China’s pioneering wind companies and Goldwind’s predecessor, was founded by using a $3.2 million Danish grant. The company was led by Wang Wenqi, a stubborn man who believed that wind could be harnessed for electrical power. Wang, who at the time was also the director of Xinjiang’s Irrigation Works and Hydropower Research Institute, remembers that colleagues scoffed at his vision of wind power as something “only creatures on the moon could think of.” But the idea that energy could be produced by wind captivated Wu Gang, and he joined the fledgling company in December 1987. Together, Wang, Wu, and their team persisted in their vision of wind power and built China’s first wind farm at Dabancheng.
Wang Wenqi imbued his team with a sense of mission. Wu Gang remembers doing the fieldwork necessary to decide where to site this first farm and describes traveling around the province in a Beijing Jeep, itself a product of one of the first Sino-foreign joint ventures. The researchers took turns standing outside in the wind for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, holding wind-measuring equipment in temperatures as cold as -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) before heading for the shelter of the Jeep and turning the equipment over to another colleague. Dabancheng had fairly constant wind—enough but not too much, with fairly even distribution. It proved to be an ideal site for a demonstration project showing wind power’s potential in China.
Wang Wenqi’s vision to build a wind farm at Dabancheng was a remarkable act of foresight. Now, when China’s prowess in everything from steel to satellites is taken for granted, it is hard to remember how poor and how technologically underdeveloped China was in the mid-1980s. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had been launched in 1978, but despite a flurry of excitement at the prospect of change, tangible progress was limited. Black and-white televisions and electric rice cookers were aspirational goods, totemic symbols of affluence. A fixed-line telephone was beyond hope for most people, private cars unthinkable. The country’s backwardness was magnified when one moved away from the coasts and from Beijing to interior cities like Urumqi.
When it opened in 1989, the Dabancheng wind farm consisted of the thirteen small (150 kilowatt, or kW) Danish-made Bonus turbines. The farm in turn seeded China’s industry, with engineers and others from around the country visiting on study tours in the years after it opened. Many of those—like Wu Gang, who headed the Dabancheng project—later fanned out around the country to install wind turbines and, at least in Wu’s case, to start their own wind power companies.
Wu and a group of colleagues founded Goldwind in 1998, as a successor company to Xinjiang Wind Energy Company. The goal was “establishing Xinjiang as the birthplace of China’s domestic wind energy industry.” Fast-forward to 2013, and Wu’s Goldwind was China’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines and the world’s second largest, with a 10 percent global market share that year. It had installed more than 14,000 turbines, on every continent except Antarctica, capable of producing 19,000 MW of electricity, more than the entire installed generating capacity of Switzerland.
How did Goldwind grow so big so fast in an industry where China had no expertise only twenty-five years earlier? The company’s success reflects a combination of traits often seen in China’s best companies: strong engineering skills, an ability both to acquire technology from other companies and to develop its own technology, and political savvy in its industry. That the wind industry is enjoying a period of rapid growth, both in China and globally, has provided a critical boost. So has the backing of Chinese national policies. [The following section of the book takes] a closer look at the role each of these factors has played in Goldwind’s success.
Excerpted from The Greening of Asia by Mark L. Clifford. Copyright © Mark L. Clifford. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Mark L. Clifford, author of The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, is the executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council. During his prize-winning 25-year career in journalism, he served as editor in chief of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and held senior editorial roles at BusinessWeek and the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has lived in Hong Kong since 1992. For more information please visit http://markclifford.org.[/box]