Whispering a dirty secret: Chinese officials set to speed up construction of dams

(December 16, 2010) China is once again giving the green light to contentious hydro-electric projects.

China’s dams are notorious for being riddled with corruption, causing environmental catastrophes and economic drag, but that hasn’t stopped the country’s top planning agency from quietly speeding up construction of more.

According to a report from Reuters, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has in recent months given the green light to multiple hydro-electric projects—including an approval for China Three Gorges Power Corp (CTGPC) to move forward with studies of the 8.7-gigawatt (GW) Wudongde and 14-GW Baihetan hydropower projects.

In July, the NDRC “formally” approved construction of the 2.4-GW Jin’anqiao hydropower project—although critics say construction had been ongoing without the government’s consent. While touring the middle Jinsha River (where the Jin’anqiao dam is located) in April of 2009, Liu Jianxiang, a leading Chinese environmentalist and journalist, accompanied by a group of citizens, discovered several dams being built illegally.

The NDRC also approved construction of China Huadian Corp’s 2.16-GW Ludila and China Huaneng Group’s 1.7-GW Longkaikou dams. As with the Jin’anqiao dam, critics says construction of Ludila and Longkaikou had proceeded without proper environmental assessment and without receiving the necessary approval from central government officials.

This resurgence of dam construction follows a decree last year by China’s environment ministry to halt all dam building until proper environmental studies had been conducted—the decree seemed to be useless however, as citizens groups snapped photos showing construction remained ongoing.

More worrying, is the fast forwarding of controversial dam projects without any public disclosure of the fact. The sudden impetus appears to be the result of a top-down government decree to increase non-fossil fuel energy to 15 percent by 2020, and cut carbon intensity by 40-45 percent within the same period.

According to Reuters, government officials repeatedly highlight hydropower as the best energy source to promote such a goal. Top energy official Zhang Guobao says the country’s hydropower capacity recently hit 200 GW, but must reach 380 GW by 2020 if China wants to make good on its ‘clean’ energy policies.

Zhang says the country will have to begin construction on 120 GW of hydropower through 2015 in order to do so.

If earlier top-down approaches by the Chinese government to promote “clean” energy and efficiency are a harbinger of what’s to come, blackouts and battles between local and national officials will soon become commonplace—and, pollution will actually increase. In September, decrees from the central government to hit energy-saving targets prompted many local governments to order power cuts, which forced businesses and manufacturers across the country to either slow, or halt production altogether.

The environmental decree also resulted in businesses being forced to use dirtier and more energy-intensive generators to avoid the forced shutdowns.

The irony is that Beijing’s quest to move its energy-efficiency campaign forward was hampered by the building frenzy caused by the government’s very own stimulus package, which drove production in steel, cement and other heavy industry.

In a piece for Cogeneration and On-Site Power, Grainne Ryder, a former policy director at Probe International, detailed some of the pitfalls from centralized, government control of China’s electricity market, which often resulted in annual shifts from over- to undersupply. In response to years of blackouts in the first half of the past decade, Ms. Ryder said, thousands of businesses and factories were forced to shut down several days a week, while some shifted their operations to off-peak hours.

“The problem is central planning—state power companies building power plants to meet government targets rather than actual market demand—and China’s leading economists and energy experts know it,” she wrote.

Four years later, China’s energy situation remains the same.

Brady Yauch, Probe International, December 16, 2010

Further Reading from Probe International:


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