(May 31, 1994)
THE THREE GORGES PROJECT: AN UNREASONABLE OPTION FOR ELECTRICITY GENERATION
An Account of an Interview with Luo Xibei1
by Wu Jingcai2
Having worked almost all his life in the field of hydro-electricity, this subject should be Luo Xibei’s favorite and most familiar topic of conversation. But, when referring to the grandiose Three Gorges project, he moved away from the topic of electricity generation, and urged me to consider instead the purpose of generating this electricity. So far as the project assessment is concerned, electricity production has been of primary importance. Of course, flood control and navigation are important as well, but they will generate little in the way of profits. Power production is the single most profitable function of the project. The leading group’s assessment has predicted an annual output of 84 billion kWh for the project. But Luo asks an important question-where is the electricity generated by the Three Gorges project supposed to go, and whom will it serve?
The present scheme is to transmit electricity to eastern and central China in order to reduce the amount of coal now required to meet regional economic demands. But according to Luo, this may not be the most reasonable option.
Luo suggested combining electrical power with coal production, in an effort to narrow the economic gap between the west and the east of China.3 According to present calculations, the eastern areas will require between 900 and 1000 billion kWh by 2015. By then, the Three Gorges project may produce 84 billion kWh, which would fall short of the total needs. But why should the eastern part of China consume so much electricity? This, as Luo pointed out, is because a large number of enterprises which consume a disproportionate amount of energy resources are concentrated along the eastern coastal areas where energy resources are scarce. This is irrational. Why not try to reduce the pressing need for the Three Gorges project by redistributing the industries in the eastern and western parts of China?
The present pressure for an immediate start to the Three Gorges project immediately stems from an old and traditional form of economic management that transmits energy wherever it is needed, with little consideration given to the consequences, such as the losses resulting from the submersion of land, navigation problems, population relocation, and sedimentation.4 In Luo’s opinion, the government should give due consideration to economic development in the western part of China while assessing the project. It does not seem appropriate for the state to spend so much money on a project that cannot satisfy the tremendous energy needs in the eastern part of the country.
The present emphasis on eastern and central China will increase the existing economic gap between the east and west, and will eventually affect national economic growth as a whole. Luo suggested moving some of the high-energy-consumption enterprises to the west as soon as possible in order to make full use of the rich mineral and energy resources in these areas. This will be much more profitable and efficient than transmitting power from the west to the east of the country. This new approach would require a new hydro-electric project, of moderate scale, on the Yangtze River, thus making the Three Gorges project much less urgent and, perhaps, even unnecessary.
At the end of our interview, Luo emphasized again his preference for delaying the project. He said some calculations in the assessment might not be accurate. He called for attention to the lessons to be learned from the Gezhouba dam, which is, in Luo’s opinion, a very unsuccessful project. Despite the enormous budget of Y4.8 billion, which resulted in the suspension or cancellation of some other hydro power stations in the 1970s, the Gezhouba dam has had the most severe problems with the regulation of water flow and the quality of electric power.5
The Gezhouba dam should have been built only after the Three Gorges project. But, in the 1970s, it was considered a preparation for the Three Gorges project. Since the scientific evaluations and criticisms of the Gezhouba project have never been made known to the public, there has been much praise for the project. In any assessment of the Three Gorges project, attention must be paid to the lessons learned from Gezhouba.
Sources and Further Commentary
1Luo Xibei is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, is vice-president of the Board of the China International Engineering Projects Consulting Corporation and head engineer and president of the Planning and Design Institute for Hydro-electric Resources in Beijing. Luo has held positions including chief engineer at the Survey and Design Institutes of Beijing and Chengdu, chief engineer at the Liujiaxia Gorge hydro power station, and head of design and construction of the Longyangxia Gorge hydro power station. This account was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!
2Wu Jincai is a journalist with the Xinhua News Agency.
3An increasingly serious problem in China’s development and a source of considerable political conflict. See He, China on the Edge.
4This perennial problem in China’s centrally planned economy generally ignored any calculation of real costs in developing such huge projects.
5The supply of electricity from the Gezhouba dam is erratic.
Categories: Three Gorges Probe