SPEAKER 1: The following is part of Cornell Contemporary China Initiative lecture series, under the Cornell East Asia Program. The arguments and viewpoints of this talk belong solely to the speaker. We hope you enjoy.
ROBIN MCNEAL: We're very happy that this afternoon we have with us Mr. Darrin Magee. He is associate professor of environmental studies, not terribly far from here, at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. He joined the faculty there in 2008 and is now chair both of their Environmental Studies and their Asian Studies programs.
Prior to that, he finished his PhD at the University of Washington in geography in 2006. He has been working on and doing research on water, and energy, and waste. And he teaches about those things as well nearby. And so we're very happy to have him here today to talk to us about hydropower and damming in China. So.
DARRIN MAGEE: Thanks. Thank you. I'm happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation. And I've been told I have two hours. I'm kidding. I know I don't have two hours. But I always love the opportunity to talk about dams in China. And one of the things that strikes me is that most people have some sense of large dams in China. They've heard of the Three Gorges project. They know that a lot of people were displaced by that project. And so when I say I study dams in China, I'm often asked, oh, so Three Gorges. And I say, no. Some of the other 25,000 large dams in China. There are lots of very big dams all over China, which is a continent-sized country.
And so I'll talk a little bit tonight on some research I've been doing for the past 10 or 12 years that examines hydropower in China from two perspectives. One, looking at impacts. That was kind of where most of my research started. Negative impacts resulting from hydropower and how to understand those impacts, and model them, and feed them into decision-making processes to do a better job making decisions about dams. And the second part, more recently, is sort of a broader interest in the power sector in general and the role dams will play in the future energy system in China, which is quite a significant role I suspect. And so I'll get into that a little bit too.
I'll concentrate geographically mostly in the southwest of the country. How many have been to China before? Just a quick show of hands. OK, half of the audience, maybe. Anybody been to southwestern areas, like Yunnan or Sichuan? OK. So you will know these places. I see somebody smiling very happily. Maybe you're from Yunnan? All right. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] Oh, Sichuan. OK. So my supervisor in China was from [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].
So with that, let's dive in. Challenges and opportunities for decarbonizing China's power sector. And decarbonize here is in the sense of reducing its dependence, at least percentage-wise-- and hopefully in terms of gross numbers-- on carbon-heavy fuels like coal.
So what makes me do this research? I didn't grow up a dam engineer. I'm not related to any dam engineers. I grew up in Louisiana where there's water everywhere. And I didn't grow up around dams though, so it wasn't anything there. It was more the fact that dams for me represent this sort of intersection of technology, this desire to control nature and harness energy that would otherwise be lost to the sea. And that's only, of course, the hydropower nature of dams. They have other uses as we'll discuss later.
But I've been at this for about 15 years. Like I said, looking closely at the hydropower piece of the power sector overall. And I was first motivated primarily by a concern about the geographic inequities in how the positive and negative impacts of dams played out on the landscapes. I'm a geographer by PhD. I came to that field rather late. But I often tell my students that the first task of the geographer is to recognize a spatial pattern. And that's the easy part. And the second task is to understand and explain that spatial pattern. And that, of course, is the more difficult one.
And as it turns out, the positive impacts of dams-- and there are many-- are often very broadly diffuse, diffuse geographically. Whereas the negative impacts tend to be very concentrated. And then right now some of you in the audience may know that China's in the midst of a dam building boom that is unprecedented. And this boom is occurring in a country that in 1949 had two large dams. Two large dams, right. And now has over 20,000 of them. And by large, unless I say otherwise I mean taller than 15 meters. Which, when compared to some of the really big dams, the outliers in the whole distribution of large dams in China, 15 meters high isn't very big at all. But that's one of the commonly accepted classifications of large dams. So I may use other metrics at different times.
That boom, like I said, is concentrated in the country's southwest. Not surprising. That's where the big dams, and the big mountains, and the big rivers are. And that makes for good hydropower. Perhaps most interesting from a geopolitical perspective is that these dams-- a lot of them are being built on transboundary rivers, or at least being planned for transboundary rivers, and important transboundary rivers such as the Mekong. China was the first to build a dam on the main stem of the Mekong. And I'll take apart that China thing, that China monolith, in a minute. Because that was one of the motivations for this current project as well. Who is China that's building dams? There are disparate voices in a country as big as China. There are disparate voices in the government, even. And we work to tease that apart.
But Chinese companies were the first to build a dam on the main stem of the Mekong. And now that has sort of ushered in a new phase of dam construction downstream among other Mekong countries. And that's prompting some people to call this sort of the beginning of the end of the mighty Mekong, right. The death-- signaling the death of the Mekong.
So specific questions I have that I hope to touch on in this talk. One, what precisely is driving the rapid build out of hydro in the southwest? These are areas with very limited grid access in many cases. Many of the villages don't have electricity or don't have reliable electricity. They're thousands of kilometers in some cases from-- hundreds of kilometers, up to 1,000 kilometers in some cases, from load centers that can use the quantities of electricity being produced. So this is not trivial. Electricity needs to be transmitted by some means. And those are very expensive capital-intensive power grids that don't just appear out of nowhere.
Second question, how can we better understand the positive and negative impacts of these and use that knowledge to inform decision making? So surprise, surprise. Just as the United States and many other countries, dams-- the decisions about where to build dams often involve very, very little involvement of the people who will be most directly impacted by those dams in the flooded fields adjacent to the river and that sort of thing. They're made by engineers. They're made by power companies. They're made by political officials at the national and provincial level, et cetera. So we try to-- have tried with some National Science Foundation-funded research and other projects to at least provide some tools that let people who engage at that decision-making process-- with different levels of power, and authority, and even knowledge about the process-- to at least find a way to talk about impacts and how important those impacts are. And we looked at biophysical impacts, socioeconomic impacts, and geopolitical impacts.
Three, how can the competing demand on dams and reservoirs be recognized, valued, and prioritized? And here at some points in my talk, I'll start to sound like an environmental economist. I'm not. I have lots of friends who are environmental economists. And I find a lot of that thinking is useful at times. And indeed, with dams there are lots of demands for the use of dams. Obviously, the reason that most of these in the southwest are being built is for hydropower production. But they're also very useful, not surprisingly, for flood control, for irrigation, for navigation, for tourism, even. If you think about dams in the US Southwest such as Hoover Dam, that's a prime example. And then finally, for ecology, or at least the need to keep water in the rivers, keep rivers flowing with some sort of regularity for ecological needs.
And finally, the fourth question. What role can Chinese hydro play in a lower carbon energy future for the world's fastest growing economy? Most of you have probably seen the pictures of Beijing air that looks so thick that you have to chew it before you breathe it. Maybe some of you have breathed that air recently. And there is genuine interest in improving that situation among national officials who, I think, recognize the terrible pollution situation in China as one that potentially leads to social instability.
And as I said earlier, hydro will have a role in there. And the question is, what will that role look like? Will it be providing base load, which is what hydro tends to do right now? And I'll say a little bit more about that later. Will it be providing peaking power for those really hot afternoons when the air conditioner is on maybe a few more hours in a few more factories than you expected it to be otherwise, and you risk brownouts unless you very quickly get a little more power to the grid? Or will it be the more challenging, but more exciting from an overall renewable energy perspective, role of balancing or firming variable renewables such as wind and solar, which we know are limited primarily by when the wind is blowing and when the sun is shining?
So first a look at the drivers. This is a photo of the first dam. Not-- yes, I think the first dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo, which is the upper Brahmaputra. Very concerning, not surprisingly, for India. At one point, there was a discussion among Chinese hydropower circles about using [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], so-called peaceful nuclear explosions, to blow a tunnel through a mountain in the first great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, and basically drop a whole lot of water through a very, very steep tunnel and generate a massive amount of electricity in a very short distance. And the Indian government downstream said basically, you want to do what with peaceful nuclear explosions on our back doorstep? So that died, thankfully. But nevertheless, the Brahmaputra has been dammed in Tibet. And this is an area of concern for downstream users.
So what's driving the rapid build out in the southwest? This map up in the top left just shows the little hashmarks across the rivers. And you can see this is the upper Salween here. So the Nujiang in Yunnan. Right here is the Lancang, or the upper Mekong. And then here is, of course, the upper Yangtze, the Chang Jiang. Or as it's known in Yunnan and in Sichuan, the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. And the little hashmarks just show dams that are planned, or already constructed, or in development.
So as I said a minute ago, why do you build dams in the southwest? That's where the mountains are tall. And the rivers are big. And hydropower is really easy. It depends only on the height of the mountains-- or the height of the fall and the quantity, the mass of the water, that's falling over that distance. So mgh. G is the acceleration due to gravity. This is the only equation I have in the whole talk. But it's really simple. All you need for big hydropower is a tall dam, or a lot of water, or both.
Three Gorges is not a particularly tall dam as mega dams go. It's extremely broad-- wide. And the flow through the Yangtze is phenomenal. And so the m term there, the mass term, is huge. And that's what gives Three Gorges the output that it actually has.
China, you know, we often talk about China in terms of superlatives. And in hydropower it, once again, happens that I do that. It has the world's greatest feasible hydropower. This is technically an economically feasible. Theoretical stuff is even more than that. But places where you could actually build dams-- you can imagine building dams without having to bend the laws of physics too far or bend the principles of rational economics too far-- 540 gigawatts of hydropower potential, which is a phenomenal amount.
Right now it's built just over half of that out. 300 gigawatts and growing daily. It has, as I said earlier, roughly half the world's large dams. So some 20,000 plus. Not all of those are hydroelectric. And again, you know, you get numbers that sort of boggle the mind. 23,000 rivers with drainages greater than 100 square kilometers. Now, that's not a huge drainage. That's not a huge watershed. And if you just think of the Yangtze, the Chang Jiang, which itself is 6,300 kilometers long or so. And all of the hundreds and hundreds of tributaries that flow into the Yangtze, each of which will have drainages and subdrainages
Yunnan itself. So the province in the extreme southwest of the country on the upper Mekong. There's some 25 gigawatts of potential there. About half of that has been built out so far. On the upper Salween, some 23 gigawatts. Some of you may know about Wen Jiabao, the former premier, in 2004, I think, stepping in and saying no to the Nujiang projects. Which is what environmentalists-- in fact, we had Wang Yongcheng, a journalist and environmentalist in China who'd been very active in the Nujiang-- save the Nujiang campaign, was here at Cornell about eight or 10 years ago. And spoke of what a surprising success this was that the premier would actually step in and say, you know what? No, let's not develop this one river. Let's leave this last free-flowing river in western China undammed.
That hasn't stopped the hydropower companies from continuing to do what they call [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], preliminary work, up to and including diverting the river and building the resettlement villages. So significant capacities. These numbers-- if you're not a dam geek, a hydroelectricity or an electricity geek in the first place, these numbers might not mean a lot. But this is comparable to the amount of electricity capacity that you find in the entire Tennessee Valley Authority system in the US Southeast, or in the entire Columbia River system in the US Northwest. So very significant amounts of electricity capacity.
The Jinsha is sort of the jewel in the crown, the upper Yangtze, with some 65 gigawatts of estimated potential-- I'm sorry, feasible potential. Again, only in that one province. And Yunnan itself, a province the size of Germany roughly, has right now more installed capacity than Russia, than India, than Norway, than Switzerland. A province the size of Germany, roughly 40 million people. So it's definitely to my mind, at least, deserving of our careful attention. Not only in terms of the energy numbers, but in terms of the impacts as well.
And this one-- I don't know how well you can see this. It looks really washed out from my perspective here. But the one image here. It's a clip from Google Earth. The province is 94% mountain and plateau. It's sort of the West Virginia or the Rocky Mountain province of China. And this dam that you see here visible from Google Earth is 292 meters high. So that makes that number of 15 meters high as the measure of a large dam seem woefully inadequate at capturing the size of some of the infrastructure that's going in here. 1,000 feet high. Hoover Dam, anybody seen Hoover Dam in the US southwest? So that's 700 feet high, I think. Roughly. 771 maybe.
So another driver is the favorable policy environment that's been in place for 10, 15 years if not longer. The largest rubric, or the broadest rubric, under which that's occurring is [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], the develop the west campaign that has legitimated, in the first phase, all sorts of large infrastructure projects, from airports, to roads, to bridges, to dams in the west. I just love the images that the Chinese media comes up with sometimes. Because it's like they read my mind that I was doing this presentation. And somebody at [INAUDIBLE] created this image with sort of the giant, benevolent, very visible hand setting out ultra high voltage power grid towers, power line towers, out in the west. Just showing what's happening. You can see this up here.
And then down in the bottom, of course, the images of southwestern development, or western development in general, involve the train that now connects Lhasa to eastern China. And the power grids, you can see it looks like-- again, kind of washed out. But the high voltage transmission lines are down in the left of that image.
Under the larger rubric of [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], western development, you have several other policies. Again, all of which legitimize, normalize, the idea of developing Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Tibet, as the battery-- is some of the language-- the battery of Southeast Asia, the powerhouse of China. Including the send Western electricity east. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] Or sending Yunnan power. Specifically Yunnan straight over to Guangdong province. So hopping a few provinces to power the load centers in Guangdong that are at the center of China's manufacturing engine. And then further afield, sending [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. So sending Yunnan electricity out to mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Thailand. Primarily Thailand is the destination. Although right now most of it is going to Vietnam.
So those domestic and international markets then-- and by domestic I mean within the province of Yunnan, but also within China, as I mentioned. So southern China in Guangdong. Within Yunnan, a lot of the electricity build out is happening either concurrently or before the development of electricity intensive industries. And for this I'm working on a project with a German colleague right now looking at the geographies of those industries that are primarily around non-ferrous metals refining.
So one of Yunnan's many nicknames, it has one nickname, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], the 18 stranges, the 18 curiosities of Yunnan. One of its many nicknames, and maybe a lesser-known nickname that I happen to love, is the paradise of non-ferrous metals. And it just makes me want to load the kids up in the minivan and drive to the paradise of non-ferrous metals for a weekend.
But among those non-ferrous-- titanium, zinc, gold, silver, silicon, and a few others. And a lot of those, the refining, the smelting of those metals requires electricity. And so when you have the development of lots of electricity, and the existence of lots of raw minerals, then it goes kind of logically to develop lots of smelters in the area.
Southern China has been hungry for Yunnan electricity, south central China, for about 10 years now. Guangdong's power resources have been-- there probably won't be many more power generation facilities built in Guangdong of any significance. No more nuclear sites likely I would suspect. There are already several nuclear plants in Guangdong province. Relatively few coal-fired plants I would suspect, if not for any other reasons than for the problem of transporting coal into Guangdong.
So the idea of bringing electricity from afar via ultra high voltage DC, this UHVDC-- really, really, really cutting edge. China's leading the world development in this technology-- is very attractive to many electricity users in Guangdong. And then finally, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, power sales across the board. And what that looks-- what that shapes up to look like is a power grid that's a fabric of traditional grid infrastructure like we would recognize-- the power lines that we might see alongside the interstate-- along with much higher-voltage technologies that are designed to bypass the local grids and just take power straight from centers in Yunnan to load centers, demand centers, in Guangdong.
What that's meant in terms of the growth of hydro in Yunnan is that there's been some eightfold growth in the past decade and a half. So again, a lot of untapped potential remains. But a huge increase in the amount of capacity that's there, most of which has been large hydro. Although not an insignificant amount of small hydro that oftentimes is sort of village-scale projects that provide electricity to a few hundred or a few thousand people, and ironically which at times has been submerged by larger projects and rendered useless.
Anything else to say there? Thermal power. Unlike a lot of the provinces in the east where the coal is abundant, thermal power plays a very small role in Yunnan. There has been a lot of wind. And this last slice here is photovoltaic, the little yellow slice there. A lot of wind development in the province as well.
So the third question-- no second question, sorry. How can we understand the positive and negative impacts of dam use in just a little-- a dam construction, and use that knowledge to inform our decision making? This photo here, the woman in the right looks quite agitated even to the point of violence. And this is at the site of the second dam on the Chinese stretch of the Mekong. The Lancang the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] dam. This is the resettlement village. So she's complaining about a very specific grievance involving her son. She said, look, when they came in to assess what the compensation would look like, how many of us that were here, how many of us were going to be resettled by the construction of this dam, that was 10 years ago. My son was eight. He counted as part of my household. Or my son was 10, I can't remember exactly. So they gave compensation payments based who, based on household.
By the time the dam was completed and the compensation payments were being paid out, the son was of the age that he needed to live by himself. I think he was even married. But he didn't get a compensation payment. So he had to raise the money on his own to build a house. And these anecdotes are a dime a dozen. You can find them in every resettlement village, I suspect, near a dam or resettlement villages for other infrastructure projects as well.
Specific challenges that hydro brings to the table in terms of the impacts. The socioeconomic, biophysical, and geopolitical impacts are real. They're place specific. So they're not uniform across the country. The fact that Three Gorges, for instance, flooded a reservoir that's 400 miles or so long and displaced 1.5 million people reflects the specific geography of that area, the level to which those valleys were being farmed by people living in the area. The numbers are much smaller in Yunnan. And yet, still, if you look at the cumulative displacement of all the dams, for instance, on the Lancang, on the upper Mekong, within that one Germany-sized province, it's upward of a half a million people. So it's more than Vermont, to put it in Northeast context. Not insignificant numbers.
Compensation is often inadequate. Resettled communities may face increased vulnerability. And this is particularly true in this part of the country where you have large concentrations of ethnic minorities. I did some research with an economist colleague a couple of years ago-- gosh, more than a couple of years ago now-- showing just how those vulnerabilities manifested among ethnic minority populations whose tools to engage in off-farm economic activities once they were displaced from farming areas were very, very limited, even to the point of being illiterate in Mandarin, or in Chinese, and not able to converse in even the local Chinese dialect in Kunming, which is close enough to-- or in Yunnan, which is close enough, generally, to Mandarin. Let alone sort of lack of technical skills and capacities for off-farm work.
There's some evidence, the good news-- my colleague Brian Tilton, anthropologist at Oregon State, has shown through his work that the compensation schemes do seem to be improving, that the lot of farmers resettled does in recent years tend to be getting better. Another set of impacts has to do with the biophysical impacts, particularly in terms of habitat fragmentation, what dams do to rivers. Some of the dams that a German colleague has been studying way out on the border in the Irrawaddy basin, upper Irrawaddy basin, completely dewaters stretches of river for portions of the year. So there's no water in the river, which makes it really difficult for aquatic species to survive, not surprisingly.
Kelley Kibler and Desiree Tullos did some really neat work following on the World Commission on Dams study in 2000 that pointed out the many, many flaws of large dams around the world. There was sort of a reflexive trend among NGOs, among academics, among lots of people involved in this kind of work to say, well, small dams are better. Small is just better, right. And yet Kelly and Desiree showed pretty convincingly-- their work was highlighted by NSF-- that the cumulative impacts of 100 one megawatt dams can far outweigh the impacts of one 100 megawatt dam.
So if it's apples and apples that you're comparing, then that's really something that matters a lot. And further complicating that comparison, though, is the fact that a whole bunch of one mega megawatt dams are serving a different purpose than one 100 megawatt dam. That one 100 megawatt dam is providing electricity for an urban center somewhere. The one megawatt dams maybe are providing electricity for much smaller groups of users, industrial or municipal. So those cumulative impacts, we have a lot still to understand.
And then one final thing that's often lost in discussions of capacity, when we talk about building dams that are x gigawatts, or x megawatts, or x 100 gigawatts of dam capacity, that's regardless of how much water there is in the river. How little water goes through the dam or doesn't. That's just a measure of how big the machinery is in the dam. And as it turns out, dams are used a lot less to generate electricity than their thermal power counterparts might be. So then their nuclear counterparts, or their coal-fired counterparts, or their gas-fired counterparts. And that's simply because there are a lot of other competing demands on rivers. So whereas with a thermal power plant fueled by coal or nuclear energy, you might have a usage rate or capacity factor in the high 80s or lower 90 percentage, meaning it's operating at full capacity 90% of the time or at 90% capacity 100% of the time, dams tend to be around half of that, simply because there are other demands on the rivers.
So a snapshot of the negatives. And oftentimes when I'm doing research in China and interviewing people in the dam building world and the power companies, they say something along the lines of, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. You're just anti-dam, aren't you? You just hate dams. And I say no. And I kind of moderate. And I say, I'm against bad dams. I get out of that by saying I'm against bad dams. Good dams are fine. And of course, that's loaded. How do we understand a good dam?
But the specific set-- and this is just a snapshot of some of the impacts. I'll go into them more in a minute. Reservoirs. Not surprisingly, when you build a big, concrete wall in the river, and the water that's been tumbling down out of the Himalayas off the Tibetan Plateau at a really high rate of speed, carrying a lot of sediment, when it hits that reservoir and slows down, that sediment load just falls out. And so we see this in the Western United States. We see it in any area that's been dammed heavily. And the erosion rates on China's rivers are a notch higher than the erosion rates on many of the rivers that we might be familiar with the United States because of deforestation and monsoons, primarily.
So anyway, a lot of sediment is trapped by those dams and doesn't flow downstream from the dam. Who cares? That matters a lot for fish habitat. That matters a lot for the ability of the river to scour the banks and the beds of the river to create large erosion problems downstream from the dams. It matters a lot if you're the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia where Cambodia derives 60% of its protein in rice resources. And that's not being replenished by the sediment load with seasonal flooding. A lot of concerns from a biophysical perspective about trapping that sediment.
It flattens the hydrograph. So normally rivers behave in certain ways over different time periods. The most obvious one in this part of the world, at least, is that seasonal hydrograph where, when the summer monsoons come, the flows go really, really high through the roof. And then towards the end of summer in November and whatnot those flows are dropping off. And that leads to, at times, devastating flooding. But it also sends signals to fish about when to migrate upstream to spawn, for instance. It often brings, like I said, much needed sediment to replenish agricultural lands downstream. And so when you flatten that hydrograph, and it doesn't do this anymore, but it tends to do this, then a lot of those ecological signals that might be sent to spawning fish or those flood pulses that carry nutrients downstream stop happening.
Reservoirs have lower water quality, simply-- if for no other reason than lower oxygen rates. Water with high oxygenation tends to have a higher water quality. Dams, again not surprisingly-- think like a fish. They disrupt ecosystems. But not just for migrating fish. They also disrupt ecosystems for along the river edge, et cetera, et cetera. Waterlogged soils.
And one problem that's particularly interesting if you're looking at hydroelectricity as a greenhouse-free electricity source, is that it's been fairly clearly demonstrated, just not quantified, that reservoirs in warm areas of the world tend to lead to a lot of methane production. When you flood a lot of farmland, or you flood a lot of forest, and you all of a sudden have a lot of biomass under water in low oxygen conditions, that tends to degrade in an anaerobic fashion due to bacterial activity. And the product of that degradation is lots of methane, which you probably know is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. So if you're talking about a greenhouse gas premium or benefit that you would get from hydroelectricity, in warm areas of the world that premium has to be discounted, I guess, because of the methane production.
Socioeconomic. Disruption of social networks is one thing I mentioned a minute ago. A lot of the social networks we found were not just family and friends-- who were family and friends to play cards or Mahjong with and drink some baijiu with, but were family and friends who were vital for lending money. Villagers don't necessarily go to the bank and ask for a loan when they need to build a house or have a wedding. They might borrow from a network of kin and friends. And when you disrupt those networks, you increase the vulnerabilities of those who might have otherwise been relatively well taken care of in the village.
And the-- as I noted a minute ago, with some of the smaller micro-hydro or community hydropower systems, when large dams have been built that created large reservoirs that flooded the tributaries, oftentimes the smaller hydroelectric stations which were on the tributaries get completely flooded. And they're really good when there's water behind the dam. They don't work at all when they're completely submerged. And so the irony, then, is that you have a project that looks to bring large amounts of electricity to a place that's a [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], electricity-short part of the country. And yet there's no mechanism for a dam of this scale to plug into the local village. The grids, it's-- they don't connect. The voltages are too different.
And then finally geopolitical. On these transboundary rivers we're talking about, the Lancang, the Mekong, the upper-- the Nujiang, Salween, the Irrawaddy, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], or the domestic Chang Jiang, which traverses, I think, 13 provinces on its way to the sea, these are not inconsequential governance-- big infrastructure in rivers presents not inconsequential governance challenges. For instance, basin commissions that can actually do the sort of comprehensive planning for the reach of the whole basin and take into consideration ecological needs for the river, transportation needs, agricultural needs, electricity needs, flood control needs. This gets more complicated the bigger the river and the more the infrastructure. And the more the countries, more numerous the countries. So these impacts and be acute and far-reaching, both upstream and downstream.
So dams can also produce positive impacts, I guess. Otherwise we wouldn't build them. I have a great slide somewhere, not in this presentation, but of the hydropower workers song, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] from the Cultural Revolution, I think. And I've never found anybody who could sing it. But I always want to-- I dream of starting one of these presentations with a rousing rendition of the hydropower workers song. So far it hasn't happened.
But some positive impacts. Reservoirs do create new habitat, maybe different habitat. It might be habitat for different kinds of fish species, amphibian species, reptilian species, mammalian species that the locals didn't use previously. But it's habitat. And they can reduce downstream flooding, which can be a good thing. Flooding is not always good, as we've most recently seen in Louisiana and are now seeing elsewhere in the world.
Hydro dams from a socioeconomic perspective do contribute marginally-- and I don't mean that in a negative way-- but they do contribute some amount of increased power availability on the grid at large. So users in Beijing, far away, will feel the impact to some extent of a little bit more reliable availability of power on the grid from hydroelectric dams in the southwest. And dams can-- in places where institutions are lacking or weak, they can provide the impetus for building or strengthening governance institutions. Not necessarily so far in this part of the world. But in other parts of the world they have.
But as I said, those positive impacts tend to be more diffuse geographically. So our research on impacts-- and I'll move on to the next section in a minute-- but our research on impacts, we basically categorize seven impacts into three different buckets and found indicators for all of these impacts. I'm not going to go into the details of these right now. But we designed a model that would allow different users to essentially visualize the impacts of dams. And then use that as a starting point in our ideal world, in our ideal decision-making scenario were villagers and hydropower executives are sitting around the table and deciding the fate of the river. Where they could speak the same language, if you will.
And not only did we look at the impacts and the magnitudes, an objective magnitude of the impacts, but we also added a salience factor. So we could-- each different user could say, yeah, this impact is only a two here. But it really matters a lot to me, because I'm the farmer who's going to be displaced. Whereas somebody else, the dam engineer, the hydropower company, might say that displacement of 17 people because of that dam has a salience or zero. Because what's 17 people when you're talking about power stability for the province, or indeed the country?
So competing demands on the river. I mentioned that hydroelectric facilities tend to operate at a much lower capacity, much lower percentage of their full possible output than their counterparts, their thermal counterparts, might do. And that's primarily because of competing demands for the river. So what are some of those demands? In the photo here's a picture of the construction underway on one of the Yangtze dams that will be about 12-- I think it will be the second largest. 12,000 megawatts, 12 gigawatts. Anyway, the second largest in capacity after Three Gorges. Maybe the third largest.
So hydropower, right. Obviously a lot of these are operated for hydropower. Are they operated for base load, which means you keep them on all the time to keep the lights running. Keep the lights on, sorry. So there's generally a constant or near-constant flow of water through the dams. And that facility is reliably producing x megawatts of power at any moment of the day. Some dams are operated that way. And that is a classic example of that smoothing of the hydrograph. Even in the dry season they might still be operating at that level. Because the reservoirs are big enough to capture a lot of the flow from the rainy season and hold it over throughout much of the dry season.
They can be used for flood control. So one of the problems, one of the challenges with dams in southern China in areas that are subject to the rainy monsoons, summer monsoons, is that the peak in demand for electricity for running the air conditioners in factories in Guangdong and houses in Guangdong, the peak for electricity demand comes at the same time as the peak for flood control demand. And you can't use the same dam for flood control and electricity production at the same time. You can't maximize on both of those objectives at the same time. Maximizing on electricity production means you want to be releasing a lot of water, spinning the turbines. Maximizing for flood control means you want to be holding back a lot of water and releasing it slowly as the rains subside.
Transportation. So reservoirs and shipping corridors. This is one of the major drivers, in addition to flood control and power, of the Three Gorges. It now allows very large ships to go all the way up to Chongqing. Because instead of a river you have a lake. And that lake is deep enough to float very large, large boats. And so it opens up a much greater portion of the country to ship going traffic-- ocean going traffic, sorry. And the same is true to a lesser extent on rivers like the Mekong. They get really steep and treacherous for anything but the shallowest of boats pretty much once you cross the border from Myanmar into China. And building dams with boat passage would allow for those boats to go greater distances on the river. And even in cases where there's not both passage, at least you can have large stretches of the river that are now lakes and more easily navigated by boats.
Agriculture. Not surprisingly a lot of irrigation. The irrigation uses of these rivers in the southwest is fairly low, partly because the pumping needs that that would require. In much of the river valleys the areas are very steep. The areas being farmed are very steep. And so people aren't exactly pumping water up high to irrigate their sloped farms.
Some use for drinking water provision. Not so much in this area. And then last-- these are kind of in priority. And I left tourism off of here, because it's not so much an issue in China right now, even though some of the propaganda posters by the dam companies do show children frolicking in the water and hot air balloons around the Ferris wheels and whatnot around the reservoirs. But in order of priority, ecology or ecological flows, the need to support river ecosystems, tends to be one of the last considerations.
And those priorities for the river can differ by the stakeholder. So the power companies, which are formerly ministry workers, ministry officials, then turned state-owned enterprise, now so-called stock companies-- but the majority of the stock is still owned by the state asset supervision and administration commission. They're state-owned enterprises, basically. The perspective to me, at least, seems to be to make hay while the sun shines. That is, build the dams before any more Nujiang edicts by premiers come about. Let's build the dams while we can build the dams. There's a general assumption that power demand will grow in China, and that hydroelectricity is an important part of meeting the demand.
Local officials see hydro as a major means for catalyzing development. A lot of the areas that we're talking about are extremely poor, among the country's-- the poorest counties in the country, not just in the province. And then a lot of the local residents who'll be displaced seem to be kind of resigned to the fact. They don't know much oftentimes about the dams except what the dam companies have told them. They're leery of it. They're nervous about being resettled. But they can be kind of fatalistic. Well, you know, if it's-- I hear it's good for the country. I hear it's good for the economy. And they do it.
Your question a minute ago about impacts on resettled peoples, oftentimes we'll find families and individuals who are talking about being-- what do you call-- secondary or tertiary migrants. So they've already been resettled once for a certain dam. And then that dam is being built a little bit higher. The reservoir is getting bigger. Now they're being resettled a second time. So you can just imagine the disruption that that can bring.
So finally looking to the future. What role does hydropower play in greening a coal-fired economy, an economy that, like I said a minute ago, has produced some of the most shocking photos of poor air quality in recent memory and continues to produce the number one visit-- or continues to be the number one reason for visits to the emergency rooms in eastern Chinese cities, acute respiratory distress. So what role does hydro play? And you might say, well, why do I have wind pictures up here? Some Don Quixote windmills over on the left and some figures here.
The picture shows wind construction, wind capacity additions, over the course of 2007 to 2013. So you can see huge increases in certain areas, especially in the northern part of the country, in the amount of wind. Basically a doubling every year in the amount of wind turbines put up. Some of you may know that a lot of that wind resulted in what's called [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], wasted wind with turbines that were put up but not connected to the grid. And the incentives for the grid developers to connect-- or the punishments for them not connecting as far as I know have never been enforced.
So there were a lot of wind developers who very quickly threw up wind turbines, because, hey, there's a lot of support from the central government to build wind turbines. But from a grid perspective, building expensive power lines out to turbines that would contribute fairly small amounts to the country's electricity reserves was not a priority. That's changing now. Most new turbines are connected.
So we still have a situation in China where thermal capacity, nuclear, and coal and gas-fired capacity has outpaced and continues to outpace hydroelectric capacity, even with the rapid growth that we've seen in the southwest. But these installed capacity figures for the orange line, for the thermal capacity, don't count retired thermal plants. And that's a harder number to get with any confidence, at least in recent years. And that is thermal plants that have been closed due to a number of things. They're just too old. They're too inefficient. They're small. And there's a policy underway since 2007, I think, called [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], which in Chinese is just wonderfully eloquent. Promote the big. Squash the small.
If you're going to build new coal-fired power plants, build new cutting-edge, gigawatt-scale thermal power plants, all the while tearing down, destroying, and some say exporting to Cambodia, the 100 to 250 megawatt plants that are 40, 50 years old, leaky, inefficient, etc., highly polluting. So that number, that orange line, has to be discounted maybe 100 gigawatts, maybe 150, I don't know, over the past recent years. There have been significant shutdowns.
One thing that is happening, though, is that the amount coming from hydro, the actual output coming from thermal plants, is being curtailed somewhat as new hydro and renewable sources come online, and as political leaders have sought to do something with this issue. And a lot of the coal-fired electric plants in and around Beijing and Shanghai have been shut down or had their hours sharply-- their quota sharply curtailed in recent years to try to address those pollution issues. And meanwhile, hydro keeps creeping up.
What this looks like, returning to our river in the southwest. On that one stretch of the-- and I realize now I'm a geographer. But this is, I think, maybe the first-- no, maybe the second map you've seen. I've really fallen down on the job here. This is that Yunnan province in the southwest. And on this stretch of the river alone, so the lower 2/3 of it, say, on a distance of 1,200 kilometers-- linear distance-- you can see what the-- this is a schematic of how the dams would sort of stack up, literally, on the river. So if you've been out to the Columbia River in the Western United States or any of its tributaries and seen a river that's been just turned into a series of reservoirs, each of which is capturing the electricity generated-- the energy generated by that distance, that change in height. And so some of these are among the biggest dams in the world. Massive, massive projects.
How does hydro contribute? So I mentioned baseload, peaking, and this strange thing called firming. We covered the capacity factor. The short version of that is that the total output over some unit of time, whether it's a day or a year, of a hydroelectric-- of a 500 megawatt dam versus a 500 megawatt coal-fired power plant, is going to be much lower. The actual usable electricity coming out of the hydroelectric plant is much lower. So it's not necessarily the best option for meeting what electricity people talk about as baseload, that sort of load that's on all the time, that demand that's there all the time.
What's most interesting and has come out of some work I've been doing recently with Rocky Mountain Institute-- I contributed to a very small portion of that work-- is using hydro in the way that Norway and Sweden are looking at using it in conjunction with Germany to firm variable renewables. So hydro has the unique advantage of being able to go from zero to 100% output basically instantaneously. And that shouldn't be too surprising. But as soon as you open the gates for the water to flow over the turbines, you can ramp up the hydroelectric output in a very short term. Whereas with a thermal plant, it can take minutes to hours. A nuclear plant even more slowly.
So that ability to go from idling speed, or idling output, to full output in a matter of seconds-- at most minutes, but usually seconds-- makes hydro really, really interesting as a backup spinning reserve for vast amounts of solar and wind electricity. And if you think about what solar and wind are limited by in China, it's basically land availability. And there's lots of land that's of marginal utility for farming, for grazing, for urban development, for Wal-Mart construction. A lot of marginal lands that has very high levels of sun insulation, very high wind potential.
And so if the hydro-- if large hydro could be used to compensate for those minutes when a cloud passes over, or a big bank of clouds passes over Gansu, and the amount of electricity coming out of major solar farms there drops to 50%, within a matter of seconds you've spun up hydropower. Because you have a smart grid that knows, for instance, that those dam-- and every grid asset that's being built right now in China is smart. It's communications-enabled. So it can detect when that power output from the solar facility drops and ramp up the hydro instantaneously to avoid a blackout or a brownout.
So the Chinese energy thinkers are leading the charge in that, which is also exciting. Currently dispatch rules. So the order in which certain power assets are turned on and off doesn't count carbon emissions. They don't take into consideration carbon emissions. Basically there's a fairness principle, which might sound good, but not necessarily if you're looking at two options, one of which pollutes the whole lot and one of which doesn't.
And so that quota system right now will allow for a certain amount of generation from a lot of different power plants regardless of their carbon footprint, regardless of their fuel, the dirtiness of their fuel. But as that changes and as China-- oops, I'm sorry. As China moves to start to price carbon, then that will be less of an option. And the value of hydropower, the economic value of hydropower will rise.
And this goes hand-in-hand-- I've got just a couple slides left. Bear with me. This goes hand-in-hand with something, another area where the Chinese are really leading, doing some real thought leadership, and that's demand side management. So if you think of it on a personal scale, changing from a 60 watt incandescent bulb that's hot to the touch when it blows out-- and it's hot to the touch because it's doing a really bad job of lighting and a really good job of heating up the air around it. An incandescent bulb, the Thomas Edison bulb, is a great heater and only a mediocre light device. Whereas an LED light does a much better job at converting the electricity that comes into the light into useful light, what we want. We don't buy it for heating.
And so if you look at the example of LEDs versus an incandescent, you get a 10- or 12-fold gain in efficiency. And then back at the power plant, that has a 50- or 100-fold multiplier because of all the electricity that's wasted in actually turning a thermal resource into electricity, and then in transmitting that electricity down the line to the very inefficient light bulb at the end. And so the Chinese government the early 2000s, along the time when places like Guangdong were suffering severe electricity shortages that led to rolling blackouts of large factories, started thinking along with Asian Development Bank of something called [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], an electricity power-- or efficiency power plant, sorry.
So finding ways not of building a new power plant, but of, on an industrial scale, changing the light bulb. On a factory scale saying, OK, how can we go through in this factory, or in this whole industrial development zone and find the bad light bulbs, find the inefficient motors, find the poorly performing air conditioner units, and heating units, and pumps that are pumping fluids through factories that are making whatever you can imagine? And so instead of building 100 megawatts or 1,000 megawatts of new generation, can we find 100 megawatts of poorly used electricity on the grid and capture that new supply through efficiency?
And so our partner, the partner with Rocky Mountain Institute in this, the Energy Research Institute, which is an advisory institute of the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing, a bunch of really sharp people, did a study in 2008-- this is already dated-- looking at what a lighting change would mean, what a lighting change would mean for the country. If China phased out incandescence by 2020, completely phased out incandescence by 2020, and the lighting mix was just LEDs and compact fluorescents, which are more efficient than incandescents but not as good as LEDs-- the lighting mix was something like 70% LEDs and 30% CFLs, I don't remember the exact numbers. They estimated that, compared to a base case scenario where there are still incandescents plugged in, that could save some 85 billion kilowatt hours per year.
That's a lot of electricity. And the reason I have these two pictures here is because 85 billion kilowatt hours per year is roughly the output of the Three Gorges Dam, just by changing light bulbs. Not industrial efficiency. Not motors, and pumps, and air conditioners, and that sort of thing. But just light bulbs across the country.
So there's a huge untapped potential in China, which makes me really excited about the environmental story in China, which can often be kind of depressing. Huge potential for saving lots of electricity. And meeting the demand that's left over-- this is where Rocky Mountain Institute has been going. First, reduce the demand. Meet the demand that's left over as efficiently as possible. Electrifying that demand. We're practical. So for instance, converting cars-- I say cars. I should say buses and trains-- more to electric power, rather than dead dinosaur power, rather than petroleum power. And then finally shifting to renewable and lower carbon energy sources.
So the models that we've been looking at that RMI has developed calls for developing pretty much everything-- perhaps except the Nujiang-- pretty much everything-- and some in Tibet, certainly-- of China's technically and economically feasible hydro. 93% of China's technical and economically feasible hydro. That's a lot. 500 gigawatts. On top of that, however, would be three to four times that much wind and solar each capacity in China, which would benefit from the firming capacity that that hydro power would offer.
And so in conclusion, last slide. I'm at 49 and half minutes, aren't I? I hope not too far over that. As I said, the country has the world's greatest hydro potential and existing capacity. And there's a great potential in using that to magnify the impact of nonpolluting, non-carbon renewables such as wind and solar. It has a real role to play in decarbonize the energy sector.
That said, the way that dams have been built in China-- and to be fair, the world over-- in order to compensate for those competing demands on the river, flood control, navigation, et cetera, et cetera, tends to mean that they're overbuilt and underutilized. Very, very, very tall dams. So rather than a 292 meter high dam-- which, if you think about it from an engineering perspective is pretty cool. But could you have gotten away with a 175 meter dam a little bit upstream, or a little bit downstream somewhere, not flooded out as many people or as much land, and still come away with basically the same electricity output? There's a lot to be gained in terms of how those dams are utilized. And then we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the social, ecological, and geopolitical challenges, as I hope I hinted at earlier.
A few acknowledgments. German colleague who's doing some really neat work out in the western part of the province. These are colleagues at the Asian International Rivers Center in Yunnan. Colleagues at OSU. Desiree Tullos, Brian Tilt, and Aaron Wolf, who were on the same NSF grant we had. And finally Henry Luce Foundation, which gave a five year grant to Hobart and William Smith to support Asian environmental studies.
So thanks for your patience. I hope that wasn't too dam much. I'm happy to take questions.
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Darrin Magee, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, discusses the potential and limits of hydroelectricity in improving China’s power sector and curbing its reliance on carbon. Recorded September 26, 2016 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative.