Yangtze River is a lifeline in China's hydropower plans. The projects of China Three Gorges Project Corp. indicate that the country is on course to establish along the middle and upper reaches of Yangtze River more than 10 super-sized hydropower stations with a combined installed capacity exceeding 3 million kw, or almost five times that of the Three Gorges Hydropower Station.
Ma Hongqi, a hydropower expert, told Beijing Review that the construction of hydropower stations usually costs more time and money than coal-fired power plants. The costs of constructing hydropower projects average 8,000 yuan ($1,170) per kw, double that of coal-fired power projects. But their operation, with no demand for raw materials, costs much less. More importantly, the clean energy generates no pollution. Ma said this is why the government has attached so much importance to hydropower, which it expects to account for 28 percent of the country's total power generation by 2015, up from the current 20 percent.
China's water energy resource reserve is estimated at 690 million kw in theory, with a technically exploitable installed capacity of 540 million kw, Ma said. The already developed 145 million kw only take up a quarter of the total reserve, indicating high potential for the sector.
Zhang Guobao, Director of the National Energy Administration, told the China Hydropower Forum on May 8 that the development of hydropower is a key safeguard for the country's energy security. China has become the world's second largest energy producer and consumer, with its total energy consumption hitting a dizzying 2.65 billion tons of standard coal in 2007, he said. But along with the coal-powered economic boom came a basket of intractable issues, such as the greenhouse effect, acid rain and ecological destruction. This has added urgency to the need for more efficient energy use, renewable energy and resource preservation, he said.
"China has become the center of global hydropower technology," Zhu Bofang, a researcher at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, told Beijing Review. "After a half century of development, China has gained a world leading position in terms of hydropower units design, manufacturing, installation and operation, mirrored in a batch of world-class projects, especially the Yangtze Three Gorges Hydropower Station and Longtan Hydropower Station."
Moreover, China has gained valuable experience through independently building dams that are more than 200 meters high and has been able to produce 700,000-kw units, currently a world record, Zhu said. China is capable of dealing with various technical problems, with the experience of constructing more than 50,000 hydropower stations of all sizes in the past 50 years, Zhu said.
Zhu added that China would race further ahead of other countries after the planned 800,000-kw units at the Wudongde Hydropower Station and the 1-million-kw units at the Baihetan Hydropower Station on the border between Sichuan and Yunnan are completed.
China's embrace of hydropower is not without challenges. Lei Zhidong, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told Beijing Review that the most pressing issue now is the resettlement of residents who live in areas where dams and hydropower stations will be built. To make way for the construction of the Three Gorges Hydropower Station alone, 1.2 million residents had to be relocated to other areas. Li said the proper resettlement of residents is a precondition for ensuring the smooth construction of hydropower stations and a thorny job under the pressure of high expectations from the public.
Another problem dragging down hydropower development is environment preservation. There is no doubt that hydropower stations create some changes in local ecological environments. But are these changes for the better or worse? Advocates of hydropower station projects argue that reservoirs can help with the formation of wetlands and improve surrounding living conditions, while opponents contend that a lot of terrestrial animals are hard to survive following the construction of dams and power stations. It will be a difficult but necessary task for the government to balance hydropower development and local environment protection, Lei said.
The 2004 United Nations Symposium on Hydropower and Sustainable Development stressed the key role hydropower plays in the world sustainable development, while the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development endorsed a plan to support hydropower in developing countries, Lei said. But domestic and overseas anti-hydropower waves have never subsided. Both the Three Gorges Hydropower Station and the Xiaolangdi Hydropower Station have encountered opposition, he said.