The Power Thirsty Dragon: China’s West-East Electricity Transfer Project

Via The Wilson Center’s China Environmental Forum, an interesting report on China’s energy and water imbalances, and the looming choke point China faces in terms of water, food and energy security:

Mammoth infrastructure development is keeping China’s economic engine running at a fast clip. Nevertheless, China’s urban and industrial centers on the east coast still face energy shortages, in large part because most wind, coal and hydropower plants are concentrated in the country’s inland provinces. On the other hand, China’s northern grain belt faces water shortages as increasing coal production uses more and more water.

Instead of addressing the sources of these water and energy imbalances through conservation and other demand management techniques, China’s policymakers are “feeding the beasts” by undertaking two huge infrastructure projects. The first is the South-North Water Transfer Project, the largest infrastructure project in the world, which will eventually transfer 35 billion cubic meters of water every year from China’s wet south to its dry north.

The West-East Electricity Transfer Project, initiated in the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2000-2005), was designed to bring investment and development to China’s lagging west while satisfying the growing electricity needs of the country’s eastern provinces. The project’s first phase has been and is continuing to expand the western provinces’ electricity-generating capacity, primarily through the construction of new coal bases and hydroelectric dams.

The project’s second, ongoing component is the construction of three electricity-transmission corridors, which are essentially three vast networks of electrical transmission lines that connect newly built generation capacity in the North, Central and South to China’s electricity-hungry coast (see arrows on map). Each of the corridors is expected to exceed 40 gigawatts (GW) in capacity by 2020—a combined capacity equivalent to 60 Hoover Dams. The seven recipient provinces — Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Guangdong — together consume nearly 40 percent of China’s electricity. Yunnan’s Nuozhadu Dam on the Mekong River was constructed as a part of this project, and has been touted as part of the backbone of the southern corridor, sending two-thirds of its electricity output to Guangdong—the leading province in export manufacturing.

china map west east electricity transfer project
China’s West-East Electricity Transfer Project.

Some other notable facts about China’s West-East Electricity Transfer Project that underscore its importance to China’s energy security include:

  • The controversial Three Gorges Dam is an integral component in the central corridor, sending 35 percent of its electricity to the Yangtze River Delta—China’s second largest manufacturing region. The southern corridor also receives energy from the Three Gorges Dam, albeit only about 16 percent of the dam’s output.
  • The longest, single Ultra High Voltage Direct Current (UHVDC) line in the world connects the Xiangjiaba dam on the Yangtze River (between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces) to Shanghai. It is 2,071 km (1,287 miles) long and has a capacity of 6.4 GW. These lines are known for their efficient transmission of electricity.

Growth in electricity exports from China’s western provinces brings energy security to the east coast, but exacerbates water and food insecurity in the western China’s ecologically fragile ecosystems. Because China’s eastern economic powerhouses rely on western-made electricity, energy sectors in the western province stake priority over residential and agricultural water users.

In other words, since so much of China’s GDP depends heavily on electricity produced in its western provinces, the energy sector trumps all other users when it comes to water. China must address these vulnerabilities – or choke points – to sustain its current growth.

For example, while Yunnan’s rivers are only a modest part of the South-North Water Transfer Project, there are worries about the region’s ongoing three year drought. If the south and the north experience drought at the same time, and if Guangdong province is still demanding power from Yunnan, agriculture could potentially be limiting in accessing the reservoirs of hydroelectric dams for irrigation needs.

In fact, Yunnan’s drought has already had impacts in Guangdong. In the summer of 2011, factories in Guangdong province were asked to cut power at different hours of the day for varying lengths of time because dams in Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan were producing electricity far below capacity – some as low as 10 percent of normal daily output. Moreover, in early 2012, reserve hydropower capacity in the three provinces of the Southern corridor was already down 47 percent year-on-year, thanks to the ongoing drought.

But perhaps even more troubling, the West-East Electricity Transfer Project illustrates how we in the United States and the Western world are driving the increasing use of coal and hydropower in China. Indeed, much of the electricity produced from coal and hydropower in Western China is transmitted across the country to factories making cheap goods for Western customers. It seems that in addition to “made in China,” most of our consumer goods should also say “made possible by coal and water”.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 at 5:52 pm and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”