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China’s Dams Are Refilling, and That’s Good News for the Climate


These translations are done via Google Translate

Hydropower has underperformed since 2022’s historic drought, causing widespread economic pain. That’s finally changing.

Visitors view the shipping locks of China’s Three Gorges Dam, where water storage is up about 25% from the previous year.
Visitors view the shipping locks of China’s Three Gorges Dam, where water storage is up about 25% from the previous year.
Visitors view the shipping locks of China’s Three Gorges Dam, where water storage is up about 25% from the previous year.

Despite the much-deserved excitement surrounding China’s rapid build-out of wind turbines and solar panels, the country’s biggest source of clean energy remains one of its oldest: hydroelectric dams.

This year, for the first time in a while, that’s good news for the climate.

China’s massive dams have underperformed since the country was hit by the worst drought in recent history in the summer of 2022. Generation fell 12% in the second half of that year and declined a further 5.7% through November 2023.

Hydro-reliant provinces such as Sichuan and Yunnan have been forced to curtail supplies to industrial users, creating an economic, political and climate headache. If all that lost power generation was replaced, it would have amounted to about 32 million tons of extra coal being incinerated, releasing more emissions than Finland does in a year.

That pain may now be easing as rains return.

The Three Gorges Dam As China's Historic Drought Spawns Power Crisis in New Test for Xi
The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River in Yichang. China has 421 gigawatts of hydropower.Bloomberg

At the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station, water storage is up about 25% from the previous year, according to Daiwa Capital Markets analyst Dennis Ip.

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Sichuan last week lowered its 2024 power rates for coal plants by 14% from the previous year’s average, a sign that officials are confident hydro’s contribution will be stronger this year, requiring less work from fossil fuels, Ip said.

Meanwhile, China Three Gorges Corp. has in recent years completed the 10.2-gigawatt Wudongde and 16-gigawatt Baihetan dams on the Jinsha River — capping off two decades of mega-dam construction that included rare outbursts of domestic political controversy over the forced resettlement of more than 1 million people to make room for Three Gorges.

China now has 421 gigawatts of hydropower — more than all the power plants in France, Spain and the UK combined.

If rain forecasts hold up, hydropower utilization will not only recover but come in above historical averages this year, said Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki. That means China may meet its additional energy needs this year with clean power and thus cut back on emissions.

It’s clear that wind and solar will be leading China’s clean-energy growth — the era of mega-dams is over. But for hydro to play a vital role in decarbonizing the world’s leading polluter, all it has to do is get back to normal.

–Dan Murtaugh, Bloomberg News



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