The giant Baihetan hydropower plant on the upstream branch of China’s Yangtze river has began generating electricity last week. The plant’s launch gives China’s West-East electricity transmitting project a big boost in power and dramatically reduces the eastern region’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The first two 1-gigawatt (GW) turbines began working last Wednesday after a three-day trial. The project will eventually consist of 16 such units, making Baihetan’s total generation capacity second only to that of the Three Gorges Dam.
The project has attracted heavy media attention, and even President Xi Jinping congratulated the dam in a letter.
“As a major project in China’s West-East power transmission programme, Baihetan is the largest and most technically difficult hydropower project currently under construction in the world,” said Xi. He added that the project marks a major breakthrough in China’s high-end equipment manufacturing.
The Baihetan hydropower station is located on the Jinsha River, the upper stream of the Yangtze River in Southwest China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. It will transmit rich power resources in the western part of the country to energy-consuming regions in eastern China, marking a major step in the country’s utilisation of clean energy.
Cities in eastern and central China with large populations and more developed economies have experienced electricity shortages during peak times. Additionally, regions that used to rely on coal for electricity generation are srambling to find clean power alternatives under pressure from the government to meet carbon reduction goals.
Baihetan was built by the China Three Gorges Corporation with an investment of 220 billion yuan (about $34.07 billion). It is part of a cascade of dams on the Jinsha river. The project, started in 2017, has overcome highly difficult technical challenges, breaking a number of world records including the largest underground caverns, the largest anti-seismic parameters of a 300-meter high dam, and the largest spillway caverns.
But these achievements have come against the backdrop of slowing hydropower construction globally. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the growth of hydropower capacity is set to slow by 23 percent this decade in the absence of a sweeping policy and investment push. IEA said hydropower is vital in meeting net-zero carbon goals.
“Hydropower is the forgotten giant of clean electricity, and it needs to be put squarely back on the energy and climate agenda if countries are serious about meeting their net zero goals,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol in a statement.
The agency also said that policymakers needed to address challenges to hydropower and set robust sustainability standards. IEA’s data shows that in 2020, hydropower supplied one-sixth of global electricity generation and more than all other renewables combined, covering a population of 800 million mainly in emerging and developing countries.
Global hydropower capacity is expected to increase by 17 percent or 230 GW between 2021 and 2030, led by China, India, Turkey and Ethiopia. But this number is nearly 25 percent slower than expansion in the previous decade, according to an IEA report.