A wind farm project near Huitengxile in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
No one likes strong winds in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. It creates sandstorms that not only make life difficult in the region, but also in some provinces such as Shaanxi and cities like Beijing. People still remember the sandstorm that hit Beijing in spring last year, bringing tons of sand that covered every corner of the capital and played havoc with urban life.
Strong winds are a big problem for farmers and herdsmen in the autonomous region's Huitengxile grassland. "They blow from spring to winter and sometimes we cannot even walk outdoors, let alone work or graze our livestock," said a resident of Caoduoshan, a small village that sits on a wind channel in the grassland.
But there are some people who like the strong winds blowing across the 1.183 square km region. Zhang Jian is one of them. He came to Huitengxile in 1999 to generate wind power. The 34-year-old is a manager with Huitengxile Wind Power Factory. "Wind power is clean and renewable energy and Inner Mongolia is the richest in it in China."
Zhang and his colleagues have battled with nature's moods to set up windmills in Huitengxile. Their struggle continues amid very difficult conditions, but they seem happy to carry on. "You cannot imagine the amount of energy the windmills can produce. We have about 100 wind power generators running continuously to produce 130 million kilowatt-hour (KWH), enough to meet one month's electricity supply for a medium-sized city," Zhang says.
Giving the break-up, he says the average monthly electricity needed by a household is 100 KWH. So the power generated by the windmills can meet the demand of 1.3 million such households. And if each household has three members, a total of 3.9 million people can benefit from the power generated by his plant.
According to the National Meteorological Institute, the country has the capacity to generate about 233 million KWH of wind power, about 101 million KWH of which can come from Inner Mongolia. The region's installed wind power capacity reached 500,000 KW last year and that of the newly started projects this year is designed to reach 962,100 KW, says Zhang Zhongjie, deputy director of the energy development office under the region's development and reform committee. "By 2010, the region's total wind power capacity can reach 5.17 million KW."
Inner Mongolia's capacity to generate wind energy has attracted foreign investors, too. A Canadian firm has invested $1.2 billion in a massive wind energy development project in Erlian Haote city, says Zhang. "It will be the largest wind energy development project in Asia and start operating before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games."
Apart from generating clean and renewable energy, the windmills lining the endless stretch of green grassland have been attracting a lot of tourists too, creating new business opportunities for farmers and herdsmen. "I take tourists around on my cart to see the windmills and earn more than 5,000 yuan ($641) a year, and that's about 60 percent of my total annual income," says Dong Guosheng, a farmer in Caoduoshan.
Local people have also found a way to prevent desertification, the other major problem in Inner Mongolia. For about 10 years, Xu Manyou has been planting shaliu (salix cheilophila schneid), a plant that helps check desertification. And the 77-year-old farmer in Bojianghai, a small village in Ordos city, has been making money from it, too.
The Ordos municipal government says farmers began planting shaliu in the desert in the early 1990s. The government gave the call to plant shaliu because the plant not only helps check desertification, but also creates business opportunities for the people. Shaliu grows fast and has very strong roots, making it anti-erosive and sand resistant, says Ma Chao, an engineer with Inner Mongolia Grassland Working Station.
Tall trees with a large diameter such as poplar and willow cannot mature in three years, Ma says. But shaliu is different, and thanks to its "very special features" has to be cut after every three years for new branches to emerge from the roots, says Xu. This way, shaliu can check the spread of sand and also provide material for the furniture and packing industries.
And the plant is better suited for power generation because it generates more heat when burned than coal, says Ma.
Hongye Artificial Plank Factory, a private firm built near Bojianghai, needs 120,000 tons of shaliu as raw material a year, and it buys it from the local farmers. "At present, we do business with more 20,000 farmers and herdsmen," says factory manager Li Jinglu. One of them is Xu, who makes about 30,000 yuan ($3,846) a year by selling shaliu.
Work on the country's first shaliu-based biomaterial thermal power plant began in Inner Mongolia earlier this year. The plant will start running next year, and can produce 180 to 210 million KWH of electricity, says Yun Feng, Party secretary of Ordos municipal committee. "Once it starts operating, we will encourage farmers and herdsmen to plant more shaliu so that they can check desertification, as well as earn more money," Yun says.
The benefits of shaliu are quite evident. According to State Forestry Administration figures, an average Inner Mongolia farmer/herdsman earned 345 yuan ($45) from desert-control exercises last year. Moreover, the third national desertification survey in 2004 showed Inner Mongolia's desert and sandy areas decreased by 1.6 million hectares and 486,667 hectares in five years.