It has been described as China’s most ambitious building project since the Great Wall. Operational since July 4, 2012, although it will not be completely finished until 2014, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River produces more hydroelectric energy than any other installation in the world. With 32 turbines rated at 700MW each, plus two 50MW used to provide just to operate the dam itself, the 22,500MW output of the dam will produce 10% of China’s energy needs – for now.
The difficulty, in fact the reason that the dam was built, is China’s runaway energy demands. Between 1970 and 1990, that country’s energy use rose 208%, at a rate four times the world’s average. Despite promises by the Chinese government to actually reduce energy consumption by 20% by the end of 2010, the trend has been in the opposite direction: China is projected to double its energy use between 2010 and 2030. Much of this is caused by a change in the economic and manufacturing profile of the country. Moving from light industry, such as textile manufacturing, China has become increasingly involved in heavy manufacturing and construction, particularly the energy-intensive manufacture of aluminum.
Providing this energy has become increasingly difficult. China is heavily dependent upon coal- and oil-fired electrical plants. In fact, nearly 50% of the world’s total coal-fired electric capacity is in China, although their coal reserves are only 11% of the world’s. To keep pace with the dramatic growth in energy use, China must build approximately 12 electric generation plants rated at 1000MW each per year.
The Three Gorges Dam, even as the world’s single most productive electric generation installation, is probably just a stopgap in providing energy demand. The dam is located on the upper Yangtze River in Hubei Province, just downstream from a stretch of the river that has been famed for hundreds of years as the subject of classical Chinese paintings of its cliffs and rock formations. Those gorges are gone now, drowned beneath the reservoir created by the dam. The structure, 2.3 km (1.3 miles) long and 180m (nearly 600 feet) above the riverbed, has created a reservoir 370 miles long, containing 10.3 trillion gallons of water (39.3 cubic km). This reservoir has flooded 200 miles of the canyons that were the subject of so much Chinese art.
The impact of the Three Gorges Dam go beyond just the art world. The construction and subsequent flooding of the gorges required the relocation of approximately 1.3 million people from 1,350 villages, towns and small cities. The deforestation of half the trees in the affected stretch of the river has endangered thousands of species of plants, more than half of which were already rare and many of which are at the heart of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The change in the environment has also affected animals. Wetlands that were the winter habitat of the critically endangered Siberian crane were destroyed, potentially dooming that species to extinction. Many fish and aquatic mammals are also affected; changes in the water flow, temperatures and quality have placed pressure on such endangered species as the paddlefish (only 3,000 are known to remain) and the Chinese river dolphin. Even as the reservoir was still in the process of filling, the appearance of large rafts of garbage and the creation of algae blooms signaled the decline of water quality along the river. The saturated banks of the river also began to erode, causing landslides, some of them massive. In the early months of 2009, there were 97 significant landslides along the reservoir’s footprint, one of which was reported to be at least 26,000 cubic yards – and perhaps double that. Even the weight of the trillions of gallons of water in the reservoir is blamed for the sudden increase of small earthquakes in the region.
The site of the Three Gorges Dam has been eyed as a potential location for such a project for at least a century. Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China after the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, envisioned a dam in this stretch of the Yangtze River in a book published in 1919. His successor, Chiang Kai-shek even began preliminary surveys for a dam in 1939, before the invasion by the Japanese. Even Mao Zedong spoke of the potential of a dam in this portion of the river. It was not until the 1980s that Chinese Premier Li Peng (of the Tiananmen Square Massacre fame), who was trained as an engineer in the tradition of massive Soviet-style construction projects, was successful in making the Three Rivers Gorge a reality.
Except for some finishing details, the Three Rivers Gorge is complete and operational. Although it now holds back trillions of gallons of water, it remains to be seen if it will be successful in holding back the voracious energy appetite of the Chinese economy.