The May 12 earthquake in western China’s Sichuan Province will have effects reaching further outside China than Beijing is letting on. Sichuan Province holds the key to China’s hydroelectric power generation plans in its renewable power targets and the area is also a hub for worldwide outsourced wind turbine equipment. Both were badly damaged.
This infrastructure will take months or years to repair, but in the meantime Chinese media report that “The quake in dollar terms is minimal and it seems unlikely to set back China’s economic growth by very much”. I beg to differ.
This earthquake cracked dams and roads, but at the same time it cracked holes in the myth that an ever-expanding China can accommodate an infinite number of companies wanting to open facilities there. We have been hiding behind a wall of outsourcing dependence to solve our domestic pollution and economic problems and that great wall is about to collapse.
The hydroelectric crutch
The quake zone area generated 62 per cent of Sichuan province’s total electricity production by way of hydroelectric dams, of which “396 dams were believed badly damaged and many of the power stations on the river systems were damaged and several major reservoirs are being drained to prevent their dams from failing. The seismic safety of these dams is a concern and it is expected that many of them will need repair and strengthening,” according to Ministry of Water Resources minister Chen Lei.
Even before the quake, Beijing had admitted there are major flaws in many of the country’s 87,000 dams. “Roughly 37,000 dams across the country are in a dangerous state,” Ministry of Water Resources deputy minister Jiao Yong said earlier this year, noting that many had been built decades ago.
Two weeks after the quake, the Water Resources Ministry acknowledged that 69 reservoirs and dams were on the verge of collapse, and nearly 3,000 throughout China had sustained damage.
If the always secretive central government is publishing this type of information, I can only conclude that reliable power from that region is no longer assured. This single set of facts revolving around hydroelectric production in western China is a link in a chain that stretches from China right to your backyard, and that link has broken.
Don’t count your renewable energy eggs before they hatch
China has more dams than any other country - about half the world's total. And the 11th Five Year Plan pins its hopes on rapid and massive development of every metre of flowing water in the rivers of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu Provinces in the west to satisfy the insatiable power demand for factories and homes. The Chinese government will now have to reconsider its aggressive dam-building program.
If hydroelectric projects are scrapped there will be continuous permanent electricity shortages throughout the country. China's hydroelectric consumption was about 7 per cent of their total prime energy consumed in 2007.
Pre-quake, the central government’s thinking was: “Sichuan possesses the country's largest possible reserves of hydropower resources, estimated at more than 110 gigawatts (GW). Yunnan has a number of hydropower stations under construction on the lower- and middle-reaches of the Lancang River, with 11GW and plans for dozens more projects between now and 2016. Gansu’s abundant Yellow River hydropower resources can provide electricity for the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai, Shanxi, Sichuan and Ningxia, and their further potential is great.”
The China Electricity Council believes less than 20 per cent of the country’s hydroelectric resources are being utilised. According to the pre-quake governmental plan, the hydroelectric installed capacity should have reached 125GW in 2010, accounting for 28 per cent of total installed capacity; in 2015 it could have reached 150GW; and by 2020 the goal was 300GW. These plans are not likely to eventuate as planned. This will leave China far behind its electrical generation goals and far short of the capacity it needs to attract manufacturing businesses to that part of the country.
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