The Three Gorges Project. Part VII: More power
(I) China's energy and industrial distributions.
The last significant benefit of TGP is to provide a huge hydroelectric
power plant. With 13,000-18,700 megawatts of capacity to generate 67.7 - 89.1
billion kilowatt hours of electricity every year, TGP is expected to alleviate
the serious energy shortage for China's industry today . There are many
reasons, some presented in this article, that China's waterpower should be
fully exploited. But the opponents of TGP argued that, even speaking of
energy provision alone, TGP is not necessarily the best choice compared to
Water energy, like solar and wind energies, has many advantages over
thermal energy generated from coal. First of all, it is regenerable (as long as
the river flows :-). Secondly, compared to a thermal power station, a
hydroelectric power plant does not cause direct environmental pollution.
Thirdly, to generate electrical energy by waterpower only involves one-step
conversion (i.e., from mechanical to electrical form), and is thus inherently
more efficient than that by thermal power which is a two-step process (i.e.,
from thermal to mechanical to electrical form). Finally, it is cheaper to run
and maintain a hydroelectric power station in a long run. In China,
hydroelectric power only takes 1.1 (Chinese) cents, while thermal power takes
3.8 cents to generate 1 kilowatt hour of electricity on average. Although it
usually takes 8 years to build a large hydroelectric power plant and only 4
years to build a thermal power station of equivalent scale, the latter also
requires the development of a large scale coal mine which also takes about 8
China has the richest waterpower resources in the world. Its total
exploitable waterpower amounts to 380,000 megawatts , mostly
distributed among the mountainous southwestern areas. The total
waterpower of the 3 southwestern provinces, i.e., Sichuan, Yunnan and
Guizhou, reaches 176,000 megawatts, occupying 50 % of the national
waterpower resources (see Table I for the regional distribution). The upper
and the middle reaches of the Yangtze River are particularly rich in water
energy. The total waterpower of the Yangtze, including its tributaries, adds
up to 230,000 megawatts.
Table I. Provincial distribution of water energy resources of China. From
Tian Fang, et al., 1988.
Provinces: Theoretically available (MW): Exploitable (MW):
1. Sichuan > 200,000 92,000
2. Tibet 200,000
3. Yunnan 103,600 71,170
4. Qinghai 21,600 17,980
5. Xinjiang 32,900 9,040
6. Guizhou 18,740
7. Gansu 14,260 9,100
8. Shaanxi 12,750
China's total 680,000 380,000
Despite many advantages of waterpower, China's rich water resources
are far from being fully utilized. Up to 1985, only 26,400 megawatts of
water energy has been exploited, less than 5 % of the total available. Up to
now, the coal industry accounts for more than 70% of energy production,
while waterpower contributes less than 5% (see Table II for more detail).
Although China has nearly 780 billion tons of coal deposit and ranks the
third largest in the world, the distribution is very uneven. For instance,
Shanxi ("Mount west"), a northern province and China's largest coal
production center, occupies one third of the total deposit alone. The
northern area has about 2/3, while the 8 provinces south of the Yangtze
River have only 2 % in total, of the coal storage. Unfortunately, China's
industrial centers are largely located in the southeastern area which is short
of natural resources. A well-known example is Shanghai, a metropolitan city
which was turned into a manufacturing center after the founding of PRC. As
a result, millions of tons of coal (and other raw material) are transported
across thousands of miles, from the north to support the south every year
("Bei3 Mei2 Nan2 Yun4"), greatly overloading the already jammed railway
Table II. Compositions of primary energy production and consumption.
>From Tian Fang, et al, 1988.
China (1985) % World (1980) %
Production Consumption Consumption
Coal 72.8 75.8 25.9
Fossil oil 20.9 17.1 45.6
Natural gas 2.0 2.3 18.5
Waterpower 4.3 4.8 6.3
Nuclear 0 0 2.6
Others -- 1.1
Note: I welcome readers to update these as well as all the other data in this
Here we have seen, as a consequence of command economy, an
inappropriate situation of China's industrial development, i.e., the regional
development is out of proportion to its resources . China's coal deposits
are mostly located in the northern and northwestern areas, while the
waterpower resources in southwestern area, all at about a thousand miles
away from the power-hungry industrial centers in the southeastern area. As
a result, those rich and developed coastal provinces are rather poor in the
natural resources, while those inland areas rich in resources are largely
For example, Sichuan is located at the upper reach of the Yangtze,
where the Jinsha Jiang joins most of the major tributaries such as the Yalong
Jiang and the Ming Jiang. There, the rivers flow from the Tibetan Plateau of
more than 4,000 meters high to the Sichuan Basin, and thereby obtain drops
over 3,000 meters. As a result, Sichuan has over 25% of the national
waterpower resources, which is 9 times as much as the Yellow River. If
Sichuan has made use of a half of its waterpower, it can produce 200 billion
KW hours of electricity every year, which will save 120 million tons of raw
coal, equivalent to the total amount of coal produced in Shanxi in 1980. So
far, however, it has made use of only less than 3% of the exploitable water
energy. More than 70% of its energy source still comes from coal, a resource
that Sichuan is lack of, and only 10% from waterpower, which is just opposite
to the proportion of the resources. In 1982, the average income of Sichuan is
536 yuan, ranked the 24th among the total of the 29 provinces and districts
in China. Sichuan's backward economy has been vividly depicted as "begging
with a golden bowl in hands".
On the other hand, China has suffered from serious shortage of
electricity since the early 70's. In 1985, the country was in shortage of more
than 50 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, which had suppressed more than
20% of the industrial productivity. Even in the southwestern provinces such as
Sichuan, which is extremely rich in water energy but is not densely
populated by industrial enterprises, most factories can only open 3 or 4 days
a week. Even in these areas, every kilowatt hour of electricity can make at
least 3 yuans of industrial products, not to mention the loss of those
developed coastal areas such as Jiangsu and Shanghai, in which every 1
kilowatt hour can produce twice as much.
Both the shortage of electricity and the under-development of water
energy in China are largely caused by the governmental policies. The price
of coal has been kept too low to provide any incentive to develop
waterpower. Both the investment interest and the tax of waterpower are higher
than that of coal and oil. Moreover, MWREP (Shui3 Dian4 Bu4) prefers
to develop thermal power because it does not have to worry about additional
investments such as building coalfield and railways, while it has to deal with
the resettlement in a waterpower project. Therefore, there has been many
factors against the development of the waterpower and has made it
an uncompetitive choice.
On the other hand, the mandatory low price and the high
manufacturing tax of electricity has almost made the power industry a non-
profitable business. The price of electricity, which only yields a profit of 4
cents per kilowatt hour, is only half of that in Japan. The manufacturing tax,
however, is the highest among the heavy industries (22% higher than the
transportation and coal industry, and 10% higher than the machinery). These
factors have not only hindered the development of power industry but also
created an energy-wasting manufacturing sector due to the availability of
Largely due to the low prices of the energy resources and
the backward industrial technologies, China is probably among the most
inefficient countries in the world. The average energy consumption of a
Chinese is equivalent to 700 kilograms of coal per year, which is only 5% of
an American. However, China's industry takes 60 million joules to produce a
dollar worth of product, which is 2.5 times as much energy as that of
America and India, and 4 times as that of Japan. Apparently, the inefficient
use of energy has contributed much to the power shortage in China. Besides,
China has been exporting more than 10 million tons of crude oil and oil
products every year for the exchange of foreign currencies. Such a policy
can only aggravate the energy shortage and hinder the industrial
development in a long run.
(to be continued)
 Data in this article were taken from Tian Fang et al., 1988.
 Data associated with waterpower in this article, unless specified,
refer to exploitable (not theoretical) waterpower.
 Another major factor, I think, is the backwardness of the
transportation in the vast inland areas of China.
(II) Is TGP a must for a powerful China?
We have seen from the first part of this article that the command
economy of China has so far maintained a wealthy coastland and a vast,
backward inland area. This is made possible by keeping low prices of the
scarce raw material and energy resources and by a wasteful flow of the natural
resources for thousands of miles across the country. The unbalanced
development, together with the unsound policies and the inefficient use of
the energy resources, has in many ways contributed to the power shortage
in China. In order to improve the current situation, it is imperative to adjust
the structure and the distribution of China's industry. The large scale
exploitation of waterpower in the southwestern area can play a key role in
this reform. However, the purpose of such exploitation is not so much to
alleviate the power shortage of the coastal area as to promote the local
Despite of the urgency to develop waterpower in China, the opponents
of TGP strongly disagreed that TGP is a good technical choice. They pointed
out that the volume of the reservoir is rather limited. For the 150-meter
scheme, the active volume of the reservoir is only 5% of the annual flow of
the Yangtze River. This implies that the power output of TGP has much
seasonal variation. The power output during dry season is 3,320 megawatts,
only a quarter of its 13,000 megawatts full capacity. As a result, there will
be excessive amount of electricity generated during flood season, but not
enough during dry season. It is necessary to build additional thermal power
plants to make up the seasonal difference in the output of TGP.
These experts argued that the rich waterpower resources in the upper
reach of the Yangtze and its tributaries should be exploited first. For
example, the Jinsha Jiang, which takes up more than a half of the total drop of
the Yangtze River, can have an echelon of 8 dams in series (none at present).
These dams will have a total capacity of 50,000 megawatts, which is 4
times of capacity of the 150-meter scheme, and an active volume of 65
billion cubic meters, equivalent to 43% of the annual flow of the Yangtze. An
echelon of 4 or 5 dams can also be built at the Yalong Jiang, the Dadu He, or
the Hongshui He (the Red Water River), each with similar capacity as TGP
and more active volumes for flood control. Table III gives a more detailed
comparison of TGP and several selected alternatives. These alternatives
have the following advantages:
Table III. Proposed water projects in the upper reach of the Yangtze River.
>From Tian Fang et al., 1988.
Rivers: Jinsha Jiang Yalong Jiang TGP
Location: (Dukou-Yibin) (Jinping-Dukou) (150-meter plan)
No. of dams 4 5 1
Active vol. (M^3) 16.6 billion 9.4 billion 9.4 billion
Capacity (MW) 27,220 10,800 13,000
Annual output (KWhr) 149.9 billion 68.8 billion 64.6 billion
Minimum output (%) * 34 54 23
Inundation (Ha) 12,100 1840 9740
Resettlement 196,000 24,300 330,400
Total cost (yuan) ** 26.3 billion 10.7 billion 16.0 billion
Cost per KW (yuan) *** 966 994 1227
Cost per KW hr (yuan) 0.175 0.156 0.247
*: Percentage of minimum output in the total capacity.
**: Total cost of the project without including interest, all TGP data
were provided by "Chang Ban".
***: Investment per kilowatt capacity.
(1) Because the rich "mines" of waterpower are mostly located in the
southwestern area of China, a power plant there will be more efficient than
TGP. With similar capacity and costs, the dams in the upper reach will have
more active volume and are therefore more useful in flow regulation and
flood control. They will also provide better quality power (i.e., with less
(2) The alternative projects contain a series of smaller dams, whose
construction is technically much less challenging compared to the super-
large TGP. Because these dams can be built at the same time, the
alternative projects will take about 10 years in comparison to at least 20
years for TGP. As a result, the serial dams will generate more electricity by
the time TGP is finished. They will also cost much less than TGP if the
investment interest is taken into account (more details later).
(3) The alternative projects are located in the less populated upper reach
area. Therefore, there will be less inundation loss and resettlements.
Besides, the relocation are dispersed in several provinces, which will
make the task much easier to accomplish. It is also claimed that the
alternative projects will create less environmental effects compared to TGP.
The opponents of TGP pointed out that it is a mistake to bet
everything on TGP, especially when there are so many competitive projects
not well studied. In one way, the dispute over TGP has become whether the
government should "put all the eggs in one basket" or distribute these "eggs"
more evenly (but less visibly) among the whole Yangtze area. On the other
hand, TGP alone can only solve a very limited amount of power shortage. By
the year 2000, even if the full capacity of TGP is put in use (which is
impossible), the annual output of 180-meter scheme (< 90 billion KW hrs) is
only 7.5% of the total output (see Table IV for more detail). By the year
2015, when TGP is proposed to have finished, the capacity of the 180-meter
scheme is less than 12% of the total capacity of waterpower by then. All
these indicate that TGP is simply not indispensable to China's power
industry, as its proponents suggested. Instead, due to the limited amount of
funds, TGP will seriously delay the other water projects, which, as shown
above, are more feasible in many aspects.
Table IV. Future capacity and annual output of China's electricity industry,
projected in 1986. From Tian Fang et al., 1988.
Capacity (MW) Annual output * % in **
Year: Total Waterpwr Total Waterpwr exploitable
1980 60,000 20,320 300 58 3.0%
1985 26,420 400 90 4.7%
2000 240,000 75,400 1200 240 12.5%
2015 480,000 150,630
*: Annual output of electricity in billion kilowatts hours.
**: Percentage of the developed in the total exploitable waterpower.
Note that the percentage of waterpower in the total annual output is maintained
at about 20% in the plan.
The opponents of TGP pointed out further that, instead of
building an enormous hydroelectric power plant, the government should
make adjustments in the industrial policies to alleviate the power shortage
of the southeastern area. In order to change the improper industrial
distribution, more emphasis should be laid on the development in the
southwestern area. It is also important to make more efficient use of the
energy resources. This requires appropriate adjustment in the energy price
and the improvement of China's industries by modern technologies. With so
many alternative ways to solve China's energy problem, the answer to the
subtitle of this article is obviously negative.