By Drake Long
New satellite imagery spotted by BenarNews shows an experimental wave power generator off Woody Island, China’s main military base and settlement in the Paracel archipelago at the northern end of the South China Sea.
China currently powers its various outposts in the disputed Paracels and Spratly island chains with a mixture of diesel generators, solar arrays, and wind farms, but with most reliance on diesel. Chinese state-backed researchers have raised concerns about the reliability of such a power supply, and have advocated for greater use of locally generated renewable energy.
There’s a sign of that happening at Woody Island, home to Sansha City, which houses military facilities for the Chinese navy and air force, and has about 2,000 inhabitants. It lies about 186 miles from the southernmost Chinese island of Hainan Island, and is administered as Xisha District under Hainan province. The wave generator, which measures 42 by 35 meters, is located less than one mile north of Woody.
The platform first appeared in imagery on Oct. 1 and was still there on Oct. 6, the last date on which a clear image was available. BenarNews consulted three experts who concurred the imagery showed a wave power generator.
Offshore energy network
Jonas Nahm, assistant professor for energy, resources and the environment at Johns Hopkins University, said it was unusual for offshore renewable energy sources to be tested so far from mainland China’s coast. Manufacturers prefer to demonstrate much close to home, largely because of their dependency on government support.
“The siting of it has to be from a combination of provincial and central government incentives. I can only speculate about the geopolitical motives…but it might just be that the wind resources are particularly good out there to test certain applications,” Nahm said in an interview.
A wave power generator dubbed the “Pioneer-1,” owned and operated by the Guangzhou Institute of Energy Conversion, was previously towed to the same spot in April 2018, according to a researcher with knowledge of the deployment who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. A Maritime Safety Administration notice warning ships of the Pioneer-1’s presence expired in April this year.
The new imagery could show the same generator or a similar model. In April, a tender published on China’s Ministry of Finance website asked for unspecified “towing operations” concerning the Pioneer-1 in the Paracels.
The Guangzhou Institute of Energy Conversion, a research and engineering center focused on wave power as a means of renewable energy, recently signed a deal with a subsidiary of state-owned conglomerate China Resources Company to create an offshore energy network, integrating large-scale wave power generators and wind farms, to power southern China, says a statement on the institute’s website.
The institute is partnering with China’s energy companies to provide renewable energy to “offshore islands” with the aim of building China into a “marine powerful nation,” according to a press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Pioneer-1 provides 260 kilowatts of energy to “remote islands and reefs,” according to press releases from the Guangzhou Institute of Energy Conversion, but the institute recently floated a much bigger platform dubbed the “Zhoushan” that puts out nearly twice as much power.
That generator was towed out to Dawanshan Island, off the coast of Zhuhai, Guangdong province, earlier this year as part of a demonstration project sponsored by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
China has a network of outposts that have been constructed atop reclaimed land across the Spratlys and Paracels, giving it an unrivalled foothold in the strategic waterway of the South China Sea, where five other Asian governments have territorial claims. It currently powers these outposts with a mixture of diesel generators, solar arrays, and wind farms.
Some of these solar arrays and wind turbines are visible from satellite imagery, such as those on Tree Island in the Paracels, first identified by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in 2017.
However, China’s settlements still mostly rely on diesel, according to a journal article in late September published by researchers affiliated with China’s State Grid Corporation. That report gives other details on how China’s remote islands are powered, explaining how submarine cables connect outlying islands to a main “load center” island that produces most of the energy, which is subsequently connected to the Chinese mainland by another submarine cable.
Those same researchers consider this current method of powering China’s outposts “unreliable,” citing the fragility of submarine cables and the necessity of constant supply runs by ships from the mainland. Instead, they propose a new grid for China’s occupied islands that would emphasize locally-generated renewable energy.
Only this week, the Sansha Marine Police – a separate agency from the China Coast Guard that is responsible for policing the waters around Woody Island – reported on its social media page that it had found and arrested a suspect who damaged one such submarine cable by accident in September.
Nahm said wave power is a ways from becoming a major source of power for China’s grid, although he noted Beijing’s growing interest in renewable energy technologies that could eventually be manufactured for export.
“Wave power has not really reached any kind of commercial application,” Nahm said. “Those are much earlier in their developmental trajectory than offshore (wind) turbines, which are essentially installed at utility scale in Europe at this point, and increasingly in China also.”
China is the world’s largest source of carbon emissions but it has put a growing emphasis on combating climate change when attending multilateral forums in recent years. Nahm pointed out that China pledged to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 under the Paris Climate Accord, and last month President Xi Jinping announced at the 75th United Nations General Assembly that China would seek carbon neutrality by 2060.
“Aside from these climate considerations, China is very good at making big arrays of clean energy technologies, from electric vehicle batteries to offshore (wind turbines), and has seen this as a sort of economic development strategy or national competitiveness strategy,” Nahm said.
“The domestic markets, in many ways, are serving as the testing ground for technologies China hopes it can export eventually through the Belt and Road Initiative or other export programs to developing economies, but also to markets in industrialized economies,” he said, referencing Xi’s signature initiative to develop industry and infrastructure across continents to connect China with the rest of the globe.