A man stands next to the Three Gorges dam in Yichang, Hubei province

Hydropower construction to ramp up in China

China says it will start construction on more hydropower plants this year, as it tries to wean itself off polluting fossil fuels.

Premier Li Keqiang said in his annual address to the National People's Congress last week that China would start construction on a number of hydro and nuclear power projects this year, with cleaner energy a key part of its new "war against pollution".

China, already the biggest hydropower producer, is on course to exceed a target to raise its hydro capacity by 70GW over 2011-2015, but a slowdown in project approvals means it is behind on its longer-term goals.

New capacity approved for construction over 2011-2013 accounted for less than a quarter of the amount originally scheduled in a five-year energy plan published two years ago. To meet a 2020 target to raise capacity to 420GW, up 50 per cent from the end of last year, the government is committed to putting 120GW of new plants into construction over 2011-2015.

Hydropower already accounts for about 22 per cent of China's total power capacity and these giant projects are considered the most effective option to tackle the countries growing pollution problem, despite the huge costs of resettling migrants and the added risks of earthquakes and ecosystem losses.

China has already built the world's biggest hydropower facility at the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, with 22.5GW of capacity. The third biggest, the Xiluodu project in Sichuan province, will be completed this year.

China said in its five-year plan for 2011-2015 that it would raise total capacity from 220GW to 290GW. Capacity had already reached 280GW by the end of last year, up 12.3 per cent from 2012, according to official data.

"Looking at the major projects in the pipeline including those on the Yarlong, Dadu and Jinsha [rivers], which could complete construction by 2015, China would meet and exceed its target ... by as much as 5-10GW," said Grace Mang, China program director with advocacy group International Rivers.

China has promised to crack down on developers launching construction on big projects before feasibility studies and environmental impact assessments have been passed, but tougher approval rules mean it has fallen behind its longer-term targets.

"I think hydropower construction will see a relatively large increase this year compared to last year," said Zhang Boting, vice-secretary general of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering. But meeting the five-year construction targets will be difficult, he added.

Only 4.82GW of new hydropower capacity was actually given the go-ahead for construction last year, according to data released by the engineering society last month. Since 2011, only 26.8GW of new capacity has gone into construction, it said.

While China has started building more plants on major rivers in the south-west, controversial projects on the Nu River in Yunnan and the Brahmaputra River in Tibet are not expected to get the go-ahead in the near term, experts said.

The two projects have been named as possible 2011-2015 building targets, but only one turbine on the Nu is expected to start construction before 2015.

"Looking at it from the current situation, there isn't much chance that those projects will launch construction in the near future," said Zhang.

Hydro accounted for about 22 per cent of China's total power capacity by the end of last year, with thermal power reaching 862GW or nearly 70 per cent.

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