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China Just Endorsed Construction Of Its Biggest Hydropower Dam Yet

By Jeff Spross on May 19, 2013 at 9:00 am

"China Just Endorsed Construction Of Its Biggest Hydropower Dam Yet"

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Reuters reported on Wednesday that China’s environmental ministry has okayed the construction of a new hydroelectric dam on the Dadu River in the Sichuan province, which when completed will be the country’s largest.

China’s energy mix was 9.4 percent renewable as of 2011, and the Sichuan project is part of the country’s effort to boost itself to 15 percent by 2020. Hydroelectric power is anticipated to make up most of that increase.

The environmental ministry acknowledged that the project is massive enough to damage the local ecology, negatively effecting certain rare fish species and plant life. The dam’s developers have promised to try and offset those effects with “counter-measures,” and the project still requires the approval of China’s ruling cabinet.

To be built over 10 years by a subsidiary of state power firm Guodian Group, it is expected to cost 24.68 billion yuan ($4.02 billion) in investment.

The ministry, in a statement issued late on Tuesday, said an environmental impact assessment had acknowledged that the project would have a negative impact on rare fish and flora and affect protected local nature reserves.

Developers, it said, had pledged to take “counter-measures” to mitigate the effects.

Right now the title for China’s tallest dam goes to the Xiaowan project, at 292 meters, while the tallest dam in the world is currently Tajikistan’s Nurek dam, at 300 meters. The Sichuan dam will top 314 meters when all is said and done.

China has been at the forefront of hydroelectric development for a while now, with an enormous number of dams either constructed, in the works, or in the planning stages. Even individual projects can be of tremendous scale, providing in at least one instance an electrical capacity equal to nearly half of Britain’s entire national grid, and preventing 200 metric tons of carbon emissions each year. As of 2010, worldwide hydroelectric capacity was 850 to 900 gigawatts, meaning about one-fifth of the world’s electricity — and half the electricity for almost two thirds of the world’s countries — comes courtesy of hydropower. Though that use varies widely: the United States and Europe have developed 70 and 75 percent of their hydroelectric potential, while Africa has only taken advantage of 7 percent.

At the same time, the large bodies of water and massive landscape alterations that are part and parcel of large dam projects mean hydroelectricity can come with unusually significant downsides. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China’s Hubei province, for example, caused significant ecological damage, increased the risk of landslides, flooded a number of archeological and cultural sites, and displaced 1.3 million people. And the constricted water flow can hurt downstream populations that rely on the rivers for their fresh water supplies.

Meanwhile, climate change itself is also making hydropower less reliable, as altering weather patterns dry up some river flows, boost others, and generally make the future availability of water flows more difficult to predict.

One answer to those challenges could be small scale hydropower. Studies suggest there’s as much as 30 gigawatts of unused potential for such projects in the United States. These set-ups generally provide 10 kilowatts to 30 megawatts a piece, and don’t require damming rivers. (Or they can be built into already existing dams, the vast majority of which are not hydroelectric.) Unfortunately, regulatory red tape is in many ways the major hurdle to taking advantage of small scale hydro.

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18 Responses to China Just Endorsed Construction Of Its Biggest Hydropower Dam Yet

  1. Walter Stockhecker says:

    Environmental Ministry, humorous; Environmental Devastation Ministry maybe.

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    All over the world, issues such as pollution, climate change (through release of methane due to dam construction) and preservation of the people’s common wealth (not making species extinct) take a back seat to the financial investors’ bottom line. In this case, the state’s bottom line is enhanced through China’s energy security.

    Compared to fracking, to Fukushima and to tar sands mining, hydro isn’t horrid. Solar and wind with electricity storage through pumped hydro or through enormous fuel cells is notably better.

    • quokka says:

      Estimates of the number of people displaced by big hydro projects range from from 40 to 80 million. For every person displaced by a nuclear accident perhaps one hundred have been displaced by hydro. And those hundred have received a lot less assistance and compensation.

      Nuclear accidents are accidents. As lessons are learned, the risk of future accidents is lessened. Big hydro projects by their very nature are likely to displace many people, and you can’t do anything about that. It’s the nature of the resource.

      As far as I am aware, there are no species under threat of extinction from the use of nuclear power. That is not true for hydro.

      It’s hard to see how we can do without more hydro. And it’s just as hard to see how we can do without more nuclear power. Lets deal with the downsides of every energy technology honestly.

      • Tony says:

        Yes, and don’t forget the animals that will be killed … er … displaced.

        Big hydro destroys the environment, just as most industrial activity does. So much for China having a better environmental policy than other big nations. It’s not just the climate that is a problem.

  3. We solve problems caused by bigness with bigness; by complexity with complexity; by artificiality with artificiality; and by technology with technology.

    • Ed Leaver says:

      Indeed. Short of mass genocide on an unfathomable scale — how many billions? — we haven’t much choice. Prof. David MacKay provides some sobering population and energy production figures since the invention of the steam engine here.

  4. Hauke says:

    200 metric tons of carbon emissions each year?

  5. Cameron Phillips says:

    Hi Jeff. Just a quick note about your title: “biggest” might be misleading. “Tallest” is more accurate as the Three Gorges dam will still have the highest nameplate capacity in terms of power output. You don’t state the capacity of this dam, but The Guardian puts it at 2 GW, and the Reuters article puts it at 20–both of which are less than Three Gorges.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/17/chinese-approve-plans-worlds-tallest-dam

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/15/us-china-hydropower-idUSBRE94E0EW20130515

  6. BobbyL says:

    In terms of making progress against global warming, statistics such as increases in the percentage of energy that is renewable are almost meaningless without being put in the context of changes in total energy use. For example, if fossil fuel percentage falls from 80% to 70% between now and 2020 but the total energy use increases by 40% the total amount of fossil fuels being burned increases. That is basically what is happening in China as C02 emissions grow alarmingly each year accounting for most of the global increase in emissions. If any country holds the key to fighting global warming it would seem that the country is China. If China would agree to reduce emissions that would be the breakthrough that we need. If they don’t, it is difficult to imagine a solution.

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It’s all down to China now? Where did all the already emitted CO2 come from? Please stop the China bashing, ME

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      That is supposed to be a response to BobbyL, ME

    • Tony says:

      We should bash any country that shows an ignorance of environmental issues, when the information is readily available.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      China has taken over the emissions of the West that de-industrialised by outsourcing to China and other lower waged states. Many of the goods it produces are consumed in the rich countries. China must develop and improve its peoples well-being, because it is under constant attack by Western subversion openly aiming to foment civil strife. And China has a very low share of historical emissions. Yet it is doing more than almost any other country, yet it still gets painted as a villain. But it, and the rest of us, must do much, much more. I do not believe that there is a morally insane denialist industry, heavily financed by the rich, in China, either.

  8. Hydro might have its drawbacks but burning coal is going to bring really big problems for us all.

  9. John says:

    you say effect, i say affect