David Stanway Beijing

The number of new hydropower projects in China could surge as the country’s populist premier Wen Jiabao retires and a new leadership team races to meet ambitious 2020 energy goals.

Dam building slowed considerably under Wen, who personally intervened to block hydropower projects and avoid the potential for protest from local populations. Projects such as the $59 billion (R522.9bn) Three Gorges Dam have been the focus of criticism over the social and environmental cost China is paying for development.

More dams could be a tough sell as an increasingly affluent public pushes back against a “growth at all costs” economic model. As China’s new leaders consider how to power expansion, however, they have little choice but to push ahead with hydropower given that alternatives such as coal or nuclear fuelled power may be even less palatable to the population.

“It isn’t that hydropower is the best choice – it is the only choice,” said Lin Boqiang, the director of the China Centre of Energy Economics in Xiamen.

“Not everyone agrees with hydropower and especially when it comes to building big dams there are a lot of conflicts and we need to be conservative when considering the impact on the environment, but China has no other option.”

The government aims to boost total power capacity by nearly a half to 1 500 gigawatts by 2020, up from 1 060GW at the end of last year, while cutting coal consumption and limiting growing dependence on expensive gas imports.

The scale of the task is massive. The increase is roughly equivalent to adding Russia and India’s total combined power generation capacity.

Beijing is also seeking to raise the share of non-fossil fuels to 15 percent of its total energy mix by 2020, up from 9.4 percent last year. But China has scaled back its nuclear plans since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, limiting clean energy options and making it harder to hit the targets without many more dams.

Wen’s tenure as premier saw a number of projects shelved, with only a third of the projects identified as a priority over the 2006-2010 period actually going ahead, said Zhang Boting, the deputy head of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, a pro-hydro group.

Among the projects vetoed by Wen were a series of dams along Yunnan’s untouched, Unesco-protected Nu River, known outside China as the Salween, in 2005. The project has been shelved, but it is still listed among the government’s key development projects for the 2011 to 2015 period.

Wen, a geologist by trade and populist by instinct, is due to step down in March. But long before his departure, the tide had begun to turn. China’s latest five-year plan said 160GW of new hydro capacity needed to go into construction over the 2011 to 2015 period.

“If implemented, it will result in an unprecedented dam-building push,” said Peter Bosshard, the director of environmental group International Rivers, which campaigns against big dams.

The builders of several projects that stalled during Wen’s tenure have already begun construction even before receiving approval to go ahead. Giant power firms are preparing new multiple dam systems on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Mekong rivers in southwest China’s Yunnan province.

The 1.9GW Huangdeng project, one of a series of dams under construction on the Mekong by China’s biggest power firm, the Huaneng Group, is now 40 percent complete even though it has not yet been fully approved, activists say. – Reuters