Hydro Overpowers Energy Needs in China

By Michael Standaert

Unused energy from hydropower facilities in the southwest China provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan in 2016 was more than the amount needed to power Hebei, the main province surrounding Beijing, for a month, raising questions about the need for future projects.

Rapid development of hydropower projects, a drop in energy demand, and lack of transmission infrastructure and policies to share energy sources with other provinces meant that Sichuan and Yunnan did not use 142 and 314 terawatt-hours, respectively, last year—a dramatic jump from the 26 and 50 terawatt-hours that went unused in 2013, China Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily reported.

Idle capacity for facilities that supply electricity for industrial and residential use were built with massive investments and those resources could actually be more than what has been stated in some areas, Julian Kirchherr, a hydropower expert at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Netherlands, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Some sources I’ve talked to say that more than half of the hydropower capacity in Yunnan province is idle right now,” Kirchherr said. “China has commissioned way too many hydropower [projects]. It commissioned, once again, more hydropower capacity than any other country in the world in 2016—around 11 gigawatts—and much of this will not be needed.”

The provincial and central governments have not announced plans to deal with the unused power situation.

One solution for the extra energy, however, would be for Yunnan and Sichuan to sell idle capacity to other provinces, but “competing interests impede this,” Kirchherr said.

“The national government wants a ‘point-to-grid’ solution, which means that electricity from a particular dam in Yunnan province is directly sold to a region in need,” he said. “Prices for this solution were set by the National Development and Reform Commission and Yunnan provincial officials find these are way too low.”

The provinces and the national development agency are now at a “deadlock,” Kirchherr said, “which explains a lot of the idle capacity and what you need now is a compromise between Yunnan province and the national government.”

Environmental Impacts

The hydropower issue is particularly problematic in Yunnan, where both old and new facilities built along the Lancang River, also known as the Mekong when it flows into Southeast Asia, waste energy and threaten biodiversity.

“Six megadams have been built on the Lancang River and there are at least another six which are being planned,” Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, a program director with nonprofit International Rivers in Beijing, told Bloomberg BNA. “It is very important for China to consider the impacts on downstream neighbors as it finds ways to increase its generation of renewable energy.”

One of the threatened rivers in China is the Nu River, known as the Salween in Southeast Asia, which is the last free-flowing major river in the country and a center of biodiversity, holding around 50 percent of China’s animal species and more than 6,000 plant species.

Five large hydropower projects were slated to be built along the Nu just a few years ago, but the projects were put on hold this March when Yunnan provincial authorities suspended the project as China reevaluates balancing future energy needs against the possibility of establishing a national park along the river.

Overbuilding hydropower facilities and China’s push to develop hydropower resources in Southeast Asia as part of its Belt and Road Initiative on trade and economic development also have had negative consequences for neighboring countries, where the major rivers provide primary drinking water, food, irrigation, and other resources for millions of people downstream.

Seven dam projects were constructed on the Irrawaddy River in northern Myanmar, where 90 percent of the electricity was supposed to go to Yunnan, but the province no longer has any need for the energy, Kirchherr said. In the meantime, food security downstream has been threatened as fish are caught up in the dam, and thousands of Burmese/residents have had to be resettled.

“China needs to cancel projects abroad whose electricity was supposed to be exported to China,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Standaert in Shenzhen, China, at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

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