* Global wind energy capacity rises 31 percent in 2009
* China leads on new installations, then EU and US
* Threat of rising fuel prices to boost wind further
By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS, Feb 3 China installed more new wind turbines than either Europe or the United States last year, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) said on Wednesday.
China nearly doubled its wind capacity in 2009 with 13 gigawatts of new generating capacity, compared to 10.5 gigawatts in Europe and 9.9 gigawatts in the United States.
Overall, the global industry employed around half a million people as it boosted capacity by 31 percent to 158 gigawatts.
"The continued rapid growth of wind power, despite the financial crisis and economic downturn, is testament to the inherent attractiveness of the technology," GWEC secretary general Steve Sawyer said.
China has been criticised in many countries for its cautious stance at unsuccessful U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen in December, but it has not slowed its development of green power at home.
"The Chinese government is taking very seriously its responsibility to limit carbon dioxide emissions while providing energy for its growing economy," said Li Junfeng, secretary general of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association.
BILLIONS FOR RESEARCH
The prospect of fossil fuel prices soaring as industry hauls itself out of the current economic crisis has bolstered the investment case for wind energy, said Christian Kjaer, chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).
"Oil at around $75 in the middle of an economic crisis is unprecedented," he told reporters. "If I were an investor, I'd want to limit my exposure to uncertain fuel prices."
In a normal year, European wind farms will meet around 4.8 percent of total power demand, EWEA said. Spain installed the most new turbines in 2009, with 2.5 gigawatts, followed by Germany, Italy, France and Britain.
Spain's lead may be eroded in 2010, when it reviews its system of subsidies, but Kjaer said subsidies were not the main force driving growth.
He said with oil in the $70-80 range, new onshore windpower was roughly cost-competitive with new gas-fired power stations, and just marginally more costly than new coal.
But from 2013 onwards, the EU's carbon market will force all power producers to buy permits for each tonne of carbon they emit -- giving green energy a further competitive advantage.
EWEA released its statistics the day after the EU agreed details of a 4 billion euros ($5.6 billion) funding scheme to support hi-tech renewable projects in the race against China and the U.S.
Some of that money could go to giant wind turbines, made of space-age composites, nearly as tall as the 300-metre-high Eiffel Tower and three times more powerful than the biggest used today.
It will also be used to promote technology to trap and bury carbon dioxide emissions, as well as a swathe of green alternatives
(Reporting by Pete Harrison; Editing by Amanda Cooper)
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Keywords: ENERGY WIND