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Three Gorges Dam Champions Clean Energy Program

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Long before climate change became a global issue, inspiring reams of editorial coverage and the Copenhagen Summit, the Three Gorges Dam, the largest construction project in China since the building of the Great Wall, was attracting environmental ire around the world.

Now the mammoth decade-old project, the world's largest hydropower plant, contains a vast 175 m deep reservoir and stretches 660 km along the Yangtze River in central China. To date, it has generated 364.6 billion kw of electricity.

The China Three Gorges Corporation, the dam's operator, believes that the project's success has confounded the criticism of overseas commentators who sought to highlight its potentially negative impact on the environment. In fact, says the company, the dam is now playing a crucial role in reducing China's overall level of greenhouse gas emissions.

Li Yong'an, president of the China Three Gorges Corporation, recently received an award for his company's contribution to the development of China's clean energy program.

Scientific development

Speaking at the award ceremony in Beijing, Li promised that the corporation would persevere with its efforts to develop other sources of clean energy and help upgrade China's energy structure as part of the global campaign to tackle climate change.

He said: "To Western ears, phrases such as 'scientific development' and 'harmonious society' may sound somewhat hollow, especially when repeated endlessly by many administrators and the heads of State-owned enterprises. However, to many in China, they have proved the foundation of a new official philosophy.

"They have come to be seen as embodying China's determination to move from a dogged pursuit of financial growth to a more sustainable, less environmentally destructive economic model."

Li said the construction of Three Gorges Dam and the clean energy it now produced was the perfect embodiment of this new philosophy.

He said: "It is a potent example of low-carbon business."

The initial spur for the construction of the Three Gorges project was the need to reduce China's dependence on fossil fuels, as well as a commitment to prevent potential floods in the area.

The father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, is credited with first proposing the idea of a hydroelectric dam at the Three Gorges site in 1919. In the mid-1950s, following devastating floods along the Yangtze River, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered feasibility studies on the project. It was not until 1993, however, that construction on the dam began.

With 26 generators fully operational as of last year, the plant is now capable of producing 84.7 million kW of electricity annually. It has produced 76.8 billion kw electricity already this year.

Li said: "The Three Gorges project is an important future source of clean energy for China's growing electrical consumption.

"The Three Gorges Plant has carbon dioxide emission levels of 100 millions tons lower than a coal-fired power station capable of generating an equivalent level of electricity. It also produces one million tons of sulfur dioxide and 370,000 tons of nitrogen oxide less than a fossil fuel facility, while also offering considerable reductions in wasted water and the production of solid waste.

"It will result in saving of 50 million tons of coal every year and have a number of positive effects on the environment, including preventing acid rain and diminishing the greenhouse effect in east and central China"

Echoing Li's sentiments, Sha Xianhua, vice president of the corporation, said: "The dam will help China to meet its target of reducing carbon intensity per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2020.

"The reservoir, will improve the weather in this area, be beneficial for local agriculture, and improve water quality in the middle and lower reaches, while relieving the problems associated with the saline tide in the river's mouth to the East China Sea."

The dam is located by the Xilingxia Gorge in central China's Hubei Province, one of the three gorges of the river. It now controls a drainage area of 1 million sq km, with an average annual runoff of 451 billion cubic meters.

The open valley of the dam site and its granite bedrock proved to be the ideal topographical and geological conditions for the construction of the dam.

As with many such projects, there was widescale Western scrutiny and controversy over the proposals. Environmentalists and human rights campaigners were both vocal in their criticism of the resettlement plan. Archeologists, too, had their concerns and balked at the submergence of a large number of historical sites. Many others were saddened at the potential loss of some of the world's finest scenery.

Social benefits

Despite the avalanche of largely Western criticism, the corporation believes the social benefits of the project far outweigh any of its disadvantages.

The dam has now boosted safety levels for residents living along the Yangtze River. The Yangtze's notorious floods have been recorded for thousands of years and have claimed more than 1 million lives in the past century alone.

Although the Three Gorges Dam reservoir does not have the largest volume in the world, its reserved flood control capacity can help reduce flood peaks by between 27,000 and 33,000 cubic meters per second, the highest level for any water conservancy project in the world.

The flood control standard of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, especially the Jingjiang Section, has been hugely upgraded - from the likelihood of there being just one flood every 10 years to there just being one every hundred years. Some 15 million people and 1.5 million hectares of farmland in the Jianghan Plain are now safe from the threat of floods and the subsequent carnage they leave in their wake.

The reservoir, its engineers say, will now enable 10,000-ton ocean-going freighters to sail directly into the nation's interior for six months of the year, opening access for a region with abundant agricultural and manufactured products.

Officials hope the combination of inexpensive electricity and cheap river transportation will attract increased international investment - making Chongqing, one of the cities sited by the reservoir, a major business center in the future.

(China Daily February 23, 2010)