Chifeng, China — For nearly three decades, Zhang Jianjie worked at a coal-fired power plant in the gritty industrial city of Datong, where the air quality ranks as some of the most foul in all of China.
In 2012, Zhang volunteered for a new job on a distant ridgetop in Inner Mongolia, where electricity is generated from the wind and sun.
"This place suits me," Zhang said. "The air is good, and it is quiet. I am almost like a monk in the woods."
Zhang manages a wind plant for China Guodian, a state-owned power company that during the past decade has been at the forefront of a massive expansion of renewable energy in China.
China is now the world's biggest wind-power generator and largest market for solar panels. With the completion of the controversial Three Gorges Dam, which displaced 1.2 million people along the Yangtze River, China is now the world's top hydro-energy producer.
Some are hopeful that China's ambitious development plans for renewable energy resources will eventually lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of coal — and help pull the world back from the extremes of climate change and ocean acidification forecast for later in this century.
"I think it's a hell of a rocky road to get there. But I think it's possible," said William Chandler, co-author of an Energy Transition Research Institute study that outlines a road map for China generating 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050.
So far, China's appetite for energy is so big — and expanding so fast — that coal consumption keeps climbing even in a period of runaway growth for renewables.
'A very long plateau'
Much of the coal is burned in a new generation of power plants, which are often built by the same state-owned corporations investing in alternative energy.
"Even if coal consumption eventually plateaus, it will be a very long plateau," said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, which works in China to reduce carbon emissions.
Coal now provides some 65% of all the energy consumed each year by China, generating most of the electricity and heat for 1.3 billion Chinese and providing most of the power for industry.
Meanwhile, solar and wind power still meet less than 3% of the nation's energy needs. And China's grid hasn't expanded fast enough to deliver all the power that these projects can generate.
Wind-power developers often wait months to have their projects connected to the state-owned grid. And once their plants are finally able to feed into power lines, they often are ordered to shut down many of their turbines so the flow of electricity is balanced with demand. In Eastern Mongolia, for example, some wind farms ran at only about 50% capacity in 2012, according to the Chinese Wind Energy Association.
On blustery winter days, the kind that are prime for generating wind power, rows of turbines often are idled.
"It's a big waste of money and resources," said a wind-power-industry official. "In China we have a renewable law, which requires that 100% of the electricity from wind should be purchased by the grid. But the fact is, not all of it is delivered. "
33 wind turbines
Zhang manages the Dayuying Wind Farm, which began operating in 2011 on top of a remote mountain in the eastern part of Inner Mongolia. It expanded in 2013 with the installation of a solar-power plant.
This project is several hours' drive from the nearest city along narrow mountain roads that may be impassable during snowstorms.
For workers, this is a live-in job, and Zhang may go for months without seeing his wife, who still lives in Datong, some 300 miles to the west. He tries to prop up crew morale with karaoke sessions, and has crew members star in homemade videos that feature patriotic songs and stunning sunrises over the grasslands.
On duty, Zhang directs operations from a command center that has wraparound picture windows and resembles an air traffic control tower.
The electricity is generated by 33 wind turbines, which have more than twice the generating capacity of the solar panels at the site.
The turbines were manufactured by United Power Technology, a Guodian subsidiary that now is a major player in the global wind-power industry.
Many Chinese manufacturers got their start in partnerships with U.S. and European companies that helped pioneer the modern wind industry and shared technology as they sought to gain footholds in China. United Power was originally a joint venture with Westinghouse and eventually, Siemens, based in Germany. In 2007, as China announced ambitious plans to expand wind power, United Power severed its Western connections. During the next four years, China's wind-power capacity increased more than tenfold. United Power's share of that business helped it earn $2 billion in 2011.
Investing across the grid
By 2020, the Chinese government hopes to double wind-power capacity. Solar energy is supposed to grow at an even faster rate. Just last year, China invested $56 billion in renewable energy — more than all of Europe, according to a United Nations report.
China's five-year plan also calls for building hundreds of new coal power plants.
This creates huge challenges in trying to fashion a grid flexible enough to handle all these power sources.
Big coal plants can't easily be cranked up and down to accommodate erratic swings in energy produced from the wind and sun. In Inner Mongolia, many of the new coal plants also provide vital steam heat to towns and cities during the bitter winter months, making it even more difficult to reduce their operations to free up space for renewables.
China is investing hundreds of billions of dollars to expand and upgrade the grid that brings power from remote areas to the major population centers.
The government also has called for easing the strains on the long-distance power grid by building more renewable-energy projects close to big cities.
Solar water heaters are popping up on apartment buildings and homes all over China. Some factories have begun installing rooftop solar panels.
The government wants to accelerate that trend.
In October, Wu Xinxiong, who leads China's National Energy Administration, announced that by 2015, two-thirds of China's solar power should come from these close-to-source projects.
"They mean it. It's not just lip service," said Frank Haugwitz, a solar-energy consultant who has been based in China since 2002.
Haugwitz is particularly hopeful about the shift in attitudes on solar projects among government officials who once gave him the brushoff.
At Dayuying, Zhang denounces the pollution generated by the coal plants where he used to work and cautions against building more. He is impatient to install more solar and wind turbines on the ridgetops he traverses on his daily jogs.
"If you make the best of wind and sun, that's better," Zhang said.
This series was supported by a Perry and Alicia O'Brien Fellowship at Marquette University. The fellowship enabled reporter Hal Bernton to spend the academic year at Marquette reporting this project, and working with students from the Diederich College of Communication. Graduate student Zhu Ye contributed to this report.