For centuries, the typical image of Mongolia has been nomadic herders on horseback living in yurts or gers. This century, however, Mongolia wants to also become known as a clean energy powerhouse. Balancing their traditional culture with this modern technological development will be an ongoing objective, but as of this month, Mongolia is taking an important step towards its vision of a clean energy future with the launch of the first wind farm in the country.
While in Mongolia for last week's World Environment Day, I visited the Salkhit Wind Farm, which, when it goes online this month, will be Mongolia's first wind power project. After experiencing the wind in that area, it was clear why the locals call it "windy mountain" and why political and business leaders see so bright a future for Mongolia's clean energy.
Mongolia is so windy and has such harsh winters, in fact, that the turbines at Salkhit were built specifically to be "Mongolia-proof" so they could survive the strong winds and winter freeze. Each blade is ~120 feet and the tower and blade combined are 384 ft. However, because Mongolia's roads are still so bad, the turbines had to be transported directly over the steppe! It took three months for the pieces to arrive from China, where they were manufactured.
Each turbine has a capacity to produce 1.6 megawatts. The whole project can produce 50 MW and 168.5 million kilowatt hours. Annually, the company estimates, it will save 122,000 tons of coal, keep 180,000 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere and save 1.6 million tons of water.
Salkhit will be the first new power generating project connected to Mongolia's energy grid in 30 years. It is also the first privately-owned power plant in the country. Both of these points are significant because Mongolia currently gets 96% of its energy from coal, which is contributing to the climate change that is threatening the traditional herder lifestyle that is still so important to Mongolian culture in the form of increased desertification, decreased precipitation and depleted grasslands.
President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Prime Minister Norovyn Altankhuyag and Minister of the Environment and Green Development Sanjaasürengiin Oyuun all see foreign and domestic investment in Mongolia's clean energy resources as a way to decrease climate change-inducing carbon emissions while also helping protect the Mongolian culture that makes the country so unique.
As we drove up to the Salkhit site, I was stuck by the site of herders on horseback working giant herds of sheep, goat and cattle beneath the turbines and transmission lines already stretching across the steppe and grasslands. It was an interesting contrast of the ancient lifestyle still in practice today and the latest in the modern energy technology that is so important to our current time.
This project is still just one of what will need to be many wind and solar power projects in order for Mongolia to realize its vision of becoming a net exporter of energy to neighbors in China and Russia. Every journey has a beginning, and it was great to see Mongolia taking this important first step.