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As China shifts from coal to hydropower, critics highlight issues on efficiency & environmental impacts

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26 July 2015

China’s shift from coal to hydro comes at a heavy price

Author: Beth Walker & Liu Qin, China Dialogue

As outlined in China’s national climate plan, submitted to the United Nations last month, the country’s aim to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 or sooner will rely heavily on a shift from coal to use of non-fossil fuels…Replacing coal with hydropower may lead to cleaner air for citizens on the east coast, but there will be a high environmental price to pay for people who live in the more remote and ecologically fragile south-west, where at least 80% of the new dams will be built. Chinese environmentalists have called for an urgent halt to large hydro projects, pointing out that the country’s dash for dams has already destroyed river ecosystems, fish habitats and raised fears about safety in earthquake-prone regions.

The concentration of dams will be particularly dense on the Jinsha (upper Yangtze) River…These dams will not only hold back water flow but also silt, heightening risk of major subsidence in the Yangtze delta and floods around major cities such as Shanghai. Other cascades will pack China’s last free-flowing international rivers – such as the Mekong and Brahmaputra – which will stem water flow and could spark tensions with India and south-east Asian countries downstream… 

Many experts are sceptical that more hydropower means less coal…There is anecdotal evidence that for every new hydropower dam built in the south-west, an additional coal-fired power plant is also constructed, often as back up…China’s installed capacity in hydro is impressive, but its contribution to the country’s overall energy mix is far more modest. Due to rushed construction and other industry problems, Chinese dams are highly inefficient…about two-thirds the world average…

…But despite the high financial and environmental costs, hydropower will play an essential role in any low carbon future, argues Darrin Magee…[an] energy specialist…The radical 2050 roadmap – published in April this year – predicts China could get almost 86% of power generation from renewable energy by 2050…In a well-managed grid system, hydropower can replace coal and provide a baseload to smooth out vagaries of the weather – since these plants would be able to be switched on and off in a matter of minutes, Magee explains…[refers to Lijiang aluminum refinery & State Grid Corporation]

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