Blog: Chinese wisdom – meeting the potential of hydropower

Massive progress in hydropower has been backed by supportive policies and ground-breaking civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, writes Eddie Rich, CEO of IHA    

(IHA delegates with CSHE's Director of Popular Science Division, Yang Yongjiang)


“The history of China has been closely related to the efforts to tame the mighty Yangtze River.” So we were told as we visited the Three Gorges Dam exhibition. It is true that for centuries, frequent floods would destroy houses and agricultural land. It would displace the many people who lived by and relied on the river and its tributaries. Over 500 million inhabitants now live within its watershed. We walked out of the exhibition towards a calm, wide river.  

Whatever one thinks of the environmental and social impact of the dam and the over 50,000 dams in the Yangtze River Basin (Yang et al., 2005), life before the dams was no utopia.  

Like many of the hydropower projects along the river, the Three Gorges dam was originally built primarily as a flood defence. Because of the dam, the banks of much of the downstream river are adorned with glassy office and residential blocks.  

It also happens to be the world’s largest dam in terms of hydroelectric capacity (over 22 GW). In fact, the over 100 large hydropower stations in the Yangtze Basin have a total installed capacity of almost 200 GW. China as a whole has a total installed capacity of 352 GW – it has been topping the largest hydropower producers since 2004.  

Two days later, we were in Jinping in Sichuan Province. At 305m, Jinping I is the tallest dam in the world – the same height as the Shard Tower in London. It releases water that generates 3.6GW of power 7.5km before some of it is diverted through four 17 km water tunnels that form the Jinping II station. There is a short cut through a mountain avoiding a 150 km hairpin and a further 310m drop … and a further 4.8 GW of power. These are the deepest tunnels in the world – some 2.4 km underground. Halfway along, Yalong Hydro has teamed up with Tsinghua University to build a laboratory that is conducting deep earth experiments including, amongst other things, the search for dark matter.

These types of cascade hydropower projects feeding into the Yangtze and on the Yangtze itself are typical of the Chinese pioneering work on water storage. The same drop of water might be used dozens of times to generate electricity and might be held several times in reservoirs to be released when the power is needed.

As well breaking records on civil engineering, the Baihetan hydropower project being constructed by CTG along the Yangtze is going to be home to the first 1,000 MW turbines. To put that into perspective, each turbine is going to be twice the hydro capacity of most African countries.  

Furthermore, the Dadu River tributary of the Yangtze is home to 26 large dams under the central control of one company – Dadu River Hydro – who control them all from one room in Chengdu combining the water capacity data alongside 26 variables including equipment status, meteorology, market conditions, and other energy sources to optimise the dispatch of hydropower generation along the whole river. Artificial Intelligence and robots identify and repair faults.  

The Chinese also lead the way in long distance high voltage electrical transmission in their “West-to-East Power Transmission Project” where the renewable energy generated in the West is transmitted to to the population dense load centres in the East.

Clearly this is the place for a new CEO of International Hydropower Association to start.  

Looking forward to post-rapid growth

China is likely to reach its full feasible hydro capacity (542 GW) over the next two decades, as prime sites have already been developed and many projects are environmental, logistically and socially complex, and competition from other renewable energies is strong. China will need to shift its priorities over the next decade, including:

1. Increase focus on environmental and social performance – China has had safeguards in place since the 1980s and has cancelled projects for failure to comply. However, there remains strong criticism especially of much unregulated growth in small hydro which accounts for 23% of China’s installed capacity.  IHA strongly encourages the use of the Hydropower Sustainability Protocol in both existing projects and those under design and construction, and in small and large projects, to demonstrate good and best practice in hydropower and identify corrective measures.    

2. Increase pumped storage – China’s 13th Five-Year Plan aims to have 90 GW of pumped storage in China by 2025 (from around 30 GW today). This will involve huge cooperation between the grid and generation companies and an exploration of how to appropriately reward the services provided by pumped storage, such as the setting up of ancillary services market.  

3. Encourage benefit sharing mechanisms – IHA has just produced a guide to benefit sharing that should be adopted especially as some of the projects with more challenging social impacts are developed.

China hydropower in the world

China’s hydro expertise is now desired and needed across the world, especially in places like the Congo River Basin with a potential capacity over 100 GW. IHA and the African Development Bank will convene an Africa Hydropower Roundtable in February. There are huge acquisition opportunities in Latin America. The Chinese government is encouraging global investment through initiatives like the Belt and Road.  

China also needs the rest of the world for its growth plans, with operating companies like China Three Gorges having operations in 37 countries and PowerChina and Gezhouba as project contractors all around the world.  

In this international work, the companies will be expected to comply with the highest environment, social and governance standards in which the Hydropower Sustainability tools are recognised as the global standard.


China’s hydropower revolution was spurred by economic reforms in the late 1970s. The huge hydropower generation has reduced pollution and energy costs. It has tamed the mighty rivers. There is much to learn from China, especially for other emerging economies. IHA and others continue to work with our Chinese members to encourage good and best practice. Pioneering comes at the cost of increased scrutiny.  

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