There's more to China's hydro power story than the Three Gorges project – much more, and right in its neighborhood. While the massive and controversial Three Gorges project continues to grab headlines, a silent revolution is taking place in the remote areas of China's Southwest: From Guizhou to Sichuan and beyond, huge numbers of hydropower projects are either underway or being planned, with a combined capacity capable of dwarfing their giant, embattled cousin.
The Three Gorges Hydropower Plant continues adding capacity according to plan – a total of 10 700 megawatt generators will be in place by year's end, say officials with the China Yangtze River Three Gorges Project Development Corporation. The plant is projected to generate 37.5 billion kWh of electricity this year – 15 billion kWh more than originally planned. This overachievement has been welcomed by such energy-starved provinces as Guangdong and Jiangsu, which have been linked up to the project through extensive transferring projects. Even Chongqing, which has taken on the brunt of the burden for the project and which had been balking at seeing the plant's electricity sent to distant provinces, is starting to see the benefit of all the sacrifice in tax revenues.
But not all has gone smoothly for the mega-project, which will have an installed capacity of 18.2 GW by the time all its 26 generators come on-line in 2009, producing 84.6 billion kWh of electricity a year. First among the headaches come the pollution and debris that have accumulated in the reservoir, threatening navigation and, some fear, potentially the generating units themselves.
Summer reports told of titanic masses of floating debris hindering navigation in the reservoir, after heavy rains swept branches, weeds and garbage down neighboring slopes. At one point in the river near Fuling, Chongqing, a belt of debris roughly 1,200 meters by 110 meters had formed, making an obstacle course of a shipping lane that offered the potential to allow ocean freighters to reach Chongqing. A month-long cleanup campaign was initiated in July to tackle the problem, at a cost of RMB 45 million.
Beijing seems to have learned lessons from Three Gorges experience, and appears more concerned now about the environmental and social costs involved in such undertakings – one proposed hydropower project, which called for 13 dams on the pristine Nu River in Yunnan Province, was rejected by Wen Jiabao earlier this year in the wake of criticism of the proposal from the State Environmental Protection Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Of a total of 378 GW of exploitable hydro resources, just 92 GW had been installed by the end of last year, leaving plenty of room for further development. Dozens of major projects are currently underway – those in construction or planning, not including the Three Gorges, represent a combined capacity of 125 GW. The focus now is on large numbers of smaller, more manageable projects, not the other way around – while the vast majority of the projects currently underway are under 5 gigawatts each, added together they will be able to produce nearly seven times the power of the flagship dam.
Wang Hao, Director of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, is optimistic about hydropower's future prospects in China. "Hydropower is clean, it's profitable, and it can help meet a demand for energy that is sure to continue growing, so there's no doubt China will have to keep developing these resources in the long run," he says.