As Wen Jiabao departs, China's dam plans to accelerate

Sun Nov 18, 2012 4:09pm EST
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By David Stanway

BEIJING (Reuters) - 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 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 like coal or nuclear fueled 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, 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 1,060 GW 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 in 2011. 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.   Continued...

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao inspects honor guards after he arrived for the 21st ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh November 18, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj