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Interview: Brian Eyler on Baihetan, China's second largest dam

This article was posted by in Features and published

On August 3, amidst much fanfare and media coverage, work on China's newest monster dam officially commenced. The Baihetan Hydropower Station (白鹤滩水电站) straddles the upper reaches of the Yangtze River — otherwise known as the Jinsha (金沙) — where the country's mightiest waterway forms the border between the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. The construction area sits 260 kilometers due north of Kunming, and only 65 kilometers west of Ludian (鲁甸), site of a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in 2014.

Expected to cost an eye-popping 170 billion yuan (US$24.5 billion), the Baihetan facility will be fully operational in 2022 and become China and the world's second largest hydroelectric facility in terms of output behind only the Three Gorges Dam. It will have the capacity to produce power equivalent to "two-thirds of Beijing's annual electricity use," according to online reports. More than 100,000 people must be relocated before then to make way for a vast reservoir that will stretch into Sichuan.

GoKunming recently spoke with Brian Eyler over email about the dam. He is director of the Southeast Asia program at American think tank Stimson, and an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region specializing in China's economic cooperation with Southeast Asia. Eyler also keeps keenly abreast of dam and hydropower issues inside of China. We asked for his thoughts about Baihetan, its implications for the region and China's ongoing hydropower strategy.

Work gets underway on the Baihetan hydropower station
Work gets underway on the Baihetan hydropower station

GoKunming: Could you frame the basic situation surrounding construction of Baihetan?

Brian Eyler: The Baihetan Dam will sit at the lower end of a cascade of more than forty dams that drain out of the Jinsha and Yalong rivers. Since there are already a few huge dams downstream, the new one in Yunnan will impact local communities much more than it will impact the rest of Sichuan and other provinces downstream. At 277 meters, it's one of the tallest dams in the world, but the two most striking aspects are the amount of power it [will be able to] produce — 16 gigawatts — and the size of its reservoir, at just over 17 cubic kilometers. To put things in perspective, this is about 12 times more water than what's in Kunming's Dianchi Lake and about the same size as Fuxian Lake, which is 18.9 cubic kilometers.

GK: In terms of impact to the river itself, as well as communities downstream, what affects do you expect?

Eyler: The dam's reservoir will flood scores of communities and towns and cause the resettlement of tens of thousands of valley dwellers. Many of these people are ethnic. The resettlement practices in China rarely consider of how the needs of upland, ethnic people are different than your average rural Chinese person. So it is very unlikely that those resettled will be able to fully recover levels of livelihood similar to before they were moved.

A cascade of dams effectively turns a free running river into a series of still reservoirs, so any migratory fish or aquatic species that use this newly dammed stretch of the river will be wiped out. A dam cascade is effective for producing lots of power, but it's also an ecosystem killer for thousands of kilometers.

An artists rendering of the completed Baihetan Dam
An artists rendering of the completed Baihetan Dam

GK: Why does China continue to build hydroelectric facilities of this magnitude when many completed dams lose money or otherwise don't ever reach full capacity?

Eyler: In aggregate, the dams in Yunnan and Sichuan province produce more power than can be consumed in China. So much of that power is wasted. In 2015, Yunnan's dams alone wasted US$15 million per day at 95 terrawatt hours. That's the amount of energy that a medium-sized developing country consumes! This means that Yunnan and Sichuan's dams aren't as commercially viable as anticipated and take much longer to pay off debt. In the past, Yunnan's dams could become profitable in around ten years, but now some are taking up to 20.

GK: Is it the very long-term then that drives more building?

Eyler: So it's somewhat of a conundrum as to why the dams keep going up. There's a lot of path dependency in China's energy bureaucracy. That keeps momentum going on building dams and dams are also billed as clean energy. It's important not to look at these dams as single projects, but rather as a part of an operator's portfolio. Putting up another big dam tells shareholders and investors that business is good, and the owners actually make more money off of selling shares of their stock than from selling power itself. Sooner or later, the chickens will come home to roost as the firms become less viable, but by then the major shareholders have already become filthy rich.

Also, I think these dam developers are banking on a day when China's worked out the kinks in its long-distance transmission system and more coal plants are taken offline, which will favor sending power to the country's coastal zones. But this is all up in the air since China continues to build new coal plants in the coastal areas and looks toward the promotion of other non-hydropower renewable energy sources.

A satellite image of the dam's construction site
A satellite image of the dam's construction site

GK: Does the current situation along the Mekong River relate to that of the Jinsha/Yangtze?

Eyler: The Jinsha is different because its dams are managed by many competing companies, whereas the Mekong dams in China are operated by one firm. So automatically the Jinsha is less coordinated and more risky in terms of operation than the Lancang. This would be important in the case of a seismic event where dams need to draw down their reservoirs quickly and coordinate the flushing of that water downstream. And both rivers are located in highly seismic areas.

The cascades on both rivers are overbuilt and underperforming. They've displaced way too many people and ruined too much of the region's biodiversity to be economically stagnant. When this dam-building spree kicked off years ago, local and international researchers layered on the criticism concerning these dams and at least in the short term now, we can say thesy aren't worth the risk and damaged caused, even from a simple accounting perspective.

GK: In your opinion, is this a 'green' option as Beijing bills it, or something else?

Eyler: Some argue that it's better than coal, but we're talking about destroying thousands of kilometers of rivers and the ecosystems and human systems that thrive along them. A lot of this ethnic diversity and biodiversity is what puts Yunnan on the map and makes it such an unique part of the world.

Also, previously, building dams in Yunnan and sending power to China's coast was a tradeoff made by the Yunnan government so that mass industrialization would not come to the province. However, this is changing fast as Yunnan's mineral resources are being exploited in an increasingly rapid rate and taking a toll on the environment. Certainly hydropower should be part of the energy mix, but path dependency and greed in China's energy bureaucracy has sent damming in China's southwest out of control.

An undammed section of the Jinsha River in Yunnan
An undammed section of the Jinsha River in Yunnan

Top image: Stimson
Second image: Sina
Third image: Conac
Fourth image: Google Maps
Fifth image: Wikipedia

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Without taking pro or against the dam, have this feeling we have had these Western dam experts critizising just about every dam in Asia. Its almost like it could be an academic subject itself: The dam criticism.

The Curmudgeon says: Maybe the Western dam experts criticisms of just about every dam in Asia are right.
In vis-a-vis arguments concerning fossil-based, nuclear and hydroelectric sources of energy, perhaps the shining truth behind them all is simply that this particular species of animal consumes too much damn energy for the good of the planet, including that of our particular species. Perhaps solar, tidal, etc. development will prove me wrong. In the meantime, walk, get a bicycle or ride the bus. Healthier and less socially divisive too.

And forget about air conditioning in a city where it's never needed.

Me waiting for an Asian think tank doing a study on Western dam experts.

the damned western experts. they say the hydro is inefficient, but i read that the real subsidies for coal are about 5tn dollars annually/global. so coal not really cheap/efficient either

And note the comment about owners making money simply out of selling stock.
Human efficiency is an interesting concept.

How about the three gorges dam, is anyone out there possessing knowledge from a 'neutral' angle? If you look back at all the criticism going on then, and compare it with the situation today, can we say a lot of criticism went wrong?

You had hundreds of experts saying it will break and this and that. Personally I met one guy, around 2002, a Canadian - and I think it was ASIAN development Bank - who was a dam critic and saying it will not last more than 5 years and so on.

Disclaimer: By no means Im trying to say our Western dam experts are always wrong, and I still think its great both Gokunming and the personed interviewed provided the interview.

First - excellent and informative article. Although I absolutely must concur with some of the views of the expert - the facts are always not so obvious, when one chooses to micro-focus on subsystems as opposed to expanding one's view to a larger system. This is a popular management trend called decision-based data as opposed to data-driven decisions. So agreement, disagreement, or no opinion - depends on one's perspective.

Most westerners, especially those with hidden or obvious political agendas, look at China as they look at the west - a free market based economy.

China is a planned economy and certain infrastructures are built looking forwards decades.

China's energy consumption trajectory is not considered by the author, so let's take a look at that subjectively or qualitatively, since I'm too lazy to do the research numbers.

ENERGY CONSUMPTION IN KUNMING
Our hot water heaters used to be gas powered - but we had to replace the "damned" thing every two years because of the buildup of ash (aka toxins - seriously...green flecks in the ash - what is that? Chromium?) from the dirty gas. We switched to a combination of solar and electric (which do NOT work in tandem).

The prolific construction of new high-rises do not permit the effective use of solar in high density residential communities (e.g. most real estate development mega projects in Kunming are around the 2k residence level. So on demand electric systems make more sense.

COOKING
We haven't switched to electric because the power grid where we live simply won't handle the load (much less our ancient wiring). New high rise developments come with the option of gas or electric - with most choosing electric. It's fast, clean, and doesn't expose the stove components to cooking spillage. We've replaced our gas stove twice in the last 8 years - but to be fair - the last replacement was required because we switched to a new "cleaner" gas.

E-BIKES
Prolific.

MASS TRANSIT
The subway - electric powered. Buses moving towards electric power. And automobiles - e-powered vehicles are an emerging phenomenon with incredibly central government support and subsidies. Occasionally, you'll spot that rare BYD electric powered taxi (the SUV). China is migrating as much as its domestic infrastructure off fossil fuel dependence as possible.

So just from our own personal experiences and observations - consumer-based consumption of electric services is increasing at a steady pace.

ENVIRONMENTAL
There is no argument about the destruction of surrounding habitats and the migration of valley dwellers. This is a management issue for the government as they strive for poverty elimination. A large part of China's poverty elimination program is focused on attracting rural workers to cities, with jobs, education, and the ever upwardly mobile opportunities that education can provide - hence that insane construction pace. Kunming is planned to grow to a size of 10 million (but don't know the date on that plan).

Last time I checked - the city is at about 6.6 million, so we have another 3.4 million to go - so those 2000 unit mega developments (assume a family size of 4) housing up to 4 people, not including grandparents, in-laws, and others - 8k per development. That means ROUGHLY we'll need another 425 real estate development projects to house those 3.4 million additional residents.

That's another 850k families (3.4 mil/4,assuming a family unit of 4) consuming energy, services, infrastructure, e-bikes, cooking, water, toilet flushing, etc etc etc.

And that's JUST Kunming - there are 15 other prefectural level cities with supposed urban sprawl magnet program requirements as part of the nation's poverty elimination strategies.

So the author points out the displacement of a few thousand to a few hundred thousand people. Cast that against 3.4 million and things perhaps aren't quite as obvious - and again, that is ONLY based on Kunming plans. As we all noticed with the formerly famous and internationally maligned Chenggong ghost city (not so ghostly anymore), planned economies can be sustainably successful. And we didn't even discuss all the government (schools, 2 fly toilets, etc) and commercial infrastructures (restaurants, businesses, etc ad infinitum) that spawn from those residential communities. And we haven't even begun to address the energy sucking behavior of the internet and all its derivative industries - data centers, cloud computing centers, distributed corporate IT migration strategies.

Easy to criticize a microscopic spot than to manage the mega complicated system that is China.

However - that said - the author's points ARE valid and we do need alternate perspectives, so we understand the cost/benefit trade-off more responsibly.

And...I'll just get off that soapbox now...

Thanks for the thread of comments re my interview with GoKunming yesterday. Very useful.

I think one of the problems of the over buildout of hydropower in Yunnan is that it's drawn many new polluting industries to Yunnan province and having a major effect on the environment and provincial economy. Since Yunnan's excess hydropower can't be sent into China's grid for reasons I'll discuss below, Yunnan's hydropower developers gang up with the provincial government to attract outside heavy industry investors to build big plants all over the province - given the low overhead electricity costs. This is taking a toll on the province's mountains and rivers (where waste is dumped into).

Originally the plan for Yunnan's hydropower was to find a way the power market in Guangzhou, but Guangzhou's politicians would rather buy power produced from its local thermal coal plants to keep up provincial GDP growth and also keep employment rates up. Those coal plants need thousands of workers where a hydropower plant - even a huge megadam like Baihetan - can be run with less than 100 people.

Another problem is power purchase agreements. In most developing countries where assets need to perform over a long period of time, dam operators lock in a long term power purchasing agreement for say 20-30 years which guarantees a stream of income and pays of the debt related to the dam. In China, however, and this is only a recent change, power purchase agreements are signed on a year to year basis which means dams or other power plants really rely on their competitiveness to keep afloat. Hydropower is cheap, but China's grid congestion jacks of the price of Yunnan's hydropower for end users on the coast, so they aren't buying.

Just a few more insights into the problem. Happy to continue the discussion.

@east
Concur with your assessment - but fossil fuels are a known depleting asset, hence the long-term (perhaps beyond our lifespan) national impetus behind these assets.

Also agree that hydropower construction can be infinitely more LEED-ish in their construction behavior.

On that note - many of the more heavily polluting industries such as mining, refineries, etc can be made significantly cleaner through energy based solutions - which we have yet to witness generally in China.

For example, pollution from Guangzhou's fossil plants can energy-assisted technologies currently in use in developed countries - so that's perhaps a hybrid solution that benefits both parties - assuming one can find the funding to implement such technologies AND the project owners are sufficiently motivated to implement such cleaner technology supplements/complements - aka central government mandates, grants, and subsidies.

As for the legendary Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) - those usually come with FIT (Feed in Tariff) agreements - hence the short-term nature of these agreements. We've seen globally that FIT programs are short-term solutions to encourage market entry, but are non-sustainable.

As for grid congestion - that's an issue of planning. As you've noted, China and even developed countries still have not developed the technologies to enable efficient long-distance transmission of power.

Hydropower isn't going away - so the best solution is to hybridize and try to work with what we have to minimize all the valid issues you've raised and do our best to render these systems more ecologically harmonious - example hybridized sluice - where we can still sustainably maintain the downstream environments at a safe but sustainable level.

Too often, commercial and environmental interests stand diametrically opposed and commercial interests typically dominate.

So if you have viable suggestions that can be presented to the NDRC, I'd be more than willing and interested to discuss and perhaps help frame the projects and finance (in English, regrettably), along with potential downstream domestic government and pseudo-government investors, to add to hopefully create a potentially overwhelming sustainable, scalable, and feasible solution that NDRC can in good conscious mandate.

It's not a perfect solution - but perhaps a good first step to more responsible resource utilization and management and infinitely better than standing still, diametrically opposed.

I suppose this would be called "managed wetlands" or something like that (as opposed to eliminated wetlands) - assuming the issue is downstream wetland ecosystems.

Feel free to PM (private mail) me to discuss how to move forwards - perhaps even generate multi-lateral support.

While it may not seem apparent, ALL governmental infrastructure projects require feasibility studies, which include social and environmental impact studies - so the first starting place is to examine those studies, to understand the current standard government logic and behavior in approving and or waiving of those social and environmental costs.

To access this information, you'll absolutely need a strong commercial or government partner - the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model.

Again - the objective is to change the working model so we're all actively working together as opposed to butting heads (with a little central government mandate to help encourage the reticent).

please forgive the grammatical errors... (example conscious vs conscience)...etc.."dammed" spelling corrector...

The Three Gorges Dam, the largest engineering project in history, relocated 1.3 million people, thirteen cities, 140 towns and 1,600 villages to create a reservoir so vast that it slows the rotation of the earth. Completed in 2012, it generates eleven times more power than the Hoover Dam and earns back its capital cost every four years.

I didn't know you were here too godfree....

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