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    China Business
     Jun 2, 2012

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China gets power sums wrong
By Sabine Johnson-Reiser

China's Jinsha River, literally the "Golden Sands" River, could soon live up to its rich name. The approximately 2,300-kilometer long upstream section of the Yangtze River is the site of up to 25 planned large-scale (50 megawatt and above) hydropower projects.

China's state-run hydropower companies, local governments, and energy-hungry cities in the more developed, eastern provinces stand to profit from hydropower construction and electricity generation. Driven by Beijing's energy and climate goals, this new dam building rush, however, will reduce China's climate change adaptation capacity and hurt relationships with neighboring countries without providing the emission-free electricity Beijing is seeking.

China's status as the world's largest carbon-dioxide (CO2) emitter has put increasing pressure-both domestic and international-on


Beijing to curb national emissions. In response, the government has laid out a set of binding targets in the 12th Five Year Plan: an 11.4% increase in the use of non-fossil fuel in primary energy consumption; a 16% decrease in energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product (GDP); and a 17% decrease in CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 2015 [1].

Now, China is looking for sources of clean, emission-free and sustainable electricity to fulfill ever-growing demand and meet renewable energy and emission targets. More large scale hydropower is wrongly thought to be one such source. Consequently, dozens of projects are planned or already under construction on a number of rivers, including 26 on the Lancang, headwater of the Mekong, 13 on the Nu, headwater of the Salween, and 28 on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the headwater of the Brahmaputra.

Misguided hydropower
Addressing China's power sector - a major contributor to national greenhouse gas emissions - is critical to reaching Beijing's emission targets. A terawatt hour (TWh) of electricity generated in China produces on average 70% more CO2 emissions than a TWh generated in the United States, and China's power sector accounted for almost 50% of the country's CO2 emissions in 2009. Developments in the power sector therefore will have a significant impact on the country's emission trajectory.

The high carbon-intensity of China's electricity is due to the sector's heavy reliance on coal, a very carbon-intensive fuel that is used to generate around 80% of China's electricity. Hydropower accounts for 16% of the country's electricity generation with nuclear, wind and solar making up the remainder. Hydropower advocates argue that shifting the energy mix from carbon-intensive coal to more hydropower would benefit China's emission targets.

This argument relies on the still widespread "clean, sustainable and emission-free hydropower" narrative. Even the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change tacitly supports this misconception by making reports of greenhouse gas emissions from dam reservoirs voluntary.

Studies however have shown that hydropower can be a major source of greenhouse gas. Organic material from previously forested, but now flooded land and washed up debris, accumulates and decomposes in the dam reservoirs, thereby releasing large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

This problem particularly affects hydropower projects in tropical areas, where the vegetation is generally denser and more organic material is accumulated in reservoirs. Some hydropower facilities in tropical areas emit up to twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as coal fired power plants [2].

As most of China's planned hydropower projects are located in densely forested, subtropical southern and southwestern provinces, new dam reservoirs are likely to become significant emission sources.

Making adaptation harder
The 12th Five Year Plan also addresses climate change adaptation strategies. Beijing wants to strengthen the country's "capacity to cope with extreme climate incidents," thereby enhancing China's climate change adaptation capacity [3]. Yet, the construction of more dams will decrease China's capacity to cope with extreme climate incidents, which are predicted to include more-frequent and more-severe record floods and droughts [4].

First, the impacts of large-scale dams on wetlands and human settlement patterns limit China's adaptation capacity - the ability to moderate potential damages or cope with the consequences of climate change - as they expose millions of people to climate change related risks.

To maximize power production, dams store water during the wet season and release it during the dry season. This alteration of natural river flow patterns impacts the health of natural flood storage systems, such as downstream wetlands, lakes and marshes, often leading to their disappearance. Thus, dams reduce the frequency of smaller floods, but also decrease or eliminate wetlands' natural capacity to absorb water and thus mitigate severe floods.

In addition, dams enable the conversion of wetlands to agricultural farmland and provide downstream cities with electricity and water for irrigation, industrial and household purposes, enabling and encouraging their development and growth.

Hydropower development therefore contributes to population growth in downstream areas, which simultaneously increases the number of people at risk of dam failure as changing precipitation patterns could lead to floods that may exceed the storage capacity of dams upstream.

The controversial Three Gorges Dam is a case in point. With a capacity of 22.5 GW, the dam can generate up to 84.7 billion kWh of electricity for cities in central, southern and eastern China, including the downstream metropolis of Shanghai. While its reservoir supplied the population in the middle and lower Yangtze with a steady source of water, it also contributed to the drying up of Dongting and Poyang Lake, two of China's largest freshwater lakes, during the 2011 drought.

Although the dam withstood its first major flood test in 2010, whether the Three Gorges Dam will be able to contain future, possibly worse, floods is uncertain\. If it fails, downstream residents will not be able to rely on natural floodplains to mitigate the impact with possibly disastrous consequences for life and property.

Second, the operation of large-scale dams exacerbates droughts in downstream areas. In theory, reservoirs could provide short-term drought relief, by releasing stored water for use downstream. Yet, below a certain water level, the primary objective of hydropower operators-maximizing electricity generation-suffers.

The fact that the central government had to order the China Three Gorges Corporation to release water from the reservoir to alleviate the severe drought downstream in 2011 suggests that hydropower operators are likely to put power generation ahead of drought relief.

Third, dams make it harder for coastal cities to adapt to rising sea levels. As freshwater is held back in reservoirs upstream, natural water outflows at river deltas are reduced, contributing to a fall in coastal groundwater tables. Combined with rising sea levels, this makes coastal delta regions more susceptible to saltwater intrusion, which contaminates coastal freshwater aquifers and makes water unfit for human consumption [5].

More dams could exacerbate future saltwater intrusion challenges for many coastal Chinese cities brought on by rising sea levels. Shanghai, located in the Yangtze River Delta, is already experiencing saltwater intrusion, which research has linked to variations in water discharge from the Three Gorges Dam [6].

Lastly, the expensive and long-lasting nature of hydropower infrastructure makes it difficult or impossible to adapt them to future changes in the environment, agricultural and economic activities and human settlement patterns.

Large-scale dam construction is very costly. The record-setting Three Gorges Dam cost approximately $25 billion. Even smaller projects like the planned Xiaonanhai Dam on the Upper Yangtze cost up to $5.6 billion. China Post Securities analyst Shao Minghui estimates the hydropower sector will need around $136 billion in infrastructure investment by 2020. 

Continued 1 2  

Nepal dam deal opens door to China (Apr 18, '12)

China presses Myanmar on stalled dam (Feb 07, '12)

Three Gorges Dam crisis in slow motion (Jun 11, '11)

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