BEIJING Plans to use massive new hydropower development to boost China's power capacity by nearly half by 2015 will not dent coal demand enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions and could further damage the country's strained river system.
China wants to raise installed power capacity by 490 gigawatts (GW) to 1,440 GW by 2015. At least 140 gigawatts of the new capacity will be from hydro power -- equivalent to more than seven Three Gorges hydropower projects and enough to run the whole of France.
The new hydro, along with other sources, is expected to cut coal-fired power from 73 percent of China's generating capacity to 67 percent and slow the growth of CO2 emissions, which reached 7.5 billion tons in 2009 and are forecast to rise to as high as 12 billion tons by 2030.
But even a stringent pollution-reduction regime would still see China pump out about 9.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions by 2030 as new coal and other fossil plants also come online.
"You're just playing with the edges," Hayden Bairstow, an analyst with CLSA in Sydney said, adding that any move away from coal would also be paired with efforts to shut down smaller miners producing lower quality coal, and was likely to lead to more imports.
Government calculations suggest, however, that new hydro could cut coal use by more than 165 million tons, equivalent to China's 2010 imports but a fraction of total output of more than 3 billion tons last year.
But coal-powered plants will account for 77 percent of the remaining 350 GW of the planned new capacity, and maybe more if, as expected, the country runs into technical, financial and social hurdles in building new massive hydro projects.
China is mulling a coal production cap of 3.8 billion tons by 2015, and is committed to increasing the share of non-fossil fuel energy to 15 percent of total consumption by 2020.
But few analysts believe it is possible to scale up hydro, nuclear, solar and wind power at such a massive rate.
"We think there is still a lot of skepticism but the commitment to decarbonize the economy may have shifted the balance of power between the different factions of the government on this," said Peter Bosshard of the International Rivers NGO, which opposes hydropower development. The financial, social and political costs of further dams planned on the Yangtze river in addition to the massive 18 GW Three Gorges and new projects in the largely untouched Tibetan plateau feed into widespread distrust at home and in the downstream countries of southeast Asia.
New projects have been thin on the ground since the controversial Three Gorges dam was completed, with Premier Wen Jiabao skeptical about the virtues of big hydro.
Still, the country said last month that it has committed 400 billion yuan ($62 billion) to build four hydropower stations that would contribute 43 GW by 2015, to be built by China Three Gorges Corp. China says it has exploited just a third of its total hydropower reserves, compared to more than 80 percent in the United States and Japan.
But its hydropower capacity at the end of last year stood at 213.4 gigawatts, the highest in the world. Longer-term plans call for China to reach 450 GW of hydropower capacity by 2030, more than double current levels.
But large-scale projects require the relocation of millions of people and cause deep changes to river flows and hurt farmers and shipping, causing tensions within the country.
Furthermore, dwindling water flows along the Mekong in Southeast Asia as well as on the Brahmaputra in eastern India and Bangladesh could produce a sharp international backlash.
China's own limited water supplies could also be affected by the construction plans, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an NGO that monitors China's rivers.
"(It) means that in many of our rivers there won't be running water," he said.
GLOBAL WARMING HELPS
China however says that its Copenhagen pledge to cut 2005 levels of carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent before the end of this decade makes hydropower the best option. "Hydropower has got to be our number one priority," said Pan Li, vice-head of the environmental department of the China Electricity Council, a government-backed industry association. China is also facing its worst power shortages in years and Beijing is keen to scale up its "west-east power transmission" project aimed at criss-crossing the country with long-distance power lines that will allow new hydropower plants in the southwest to deliver cheap and clean electricity directly to the east coast. "The government wasn't giving much support to hydropower -- leaders were influenced by the propaganda issued by environmental groups -- but after the Copenhagen meeting there have been changes," said Zhang Boting, the vice-secretary general of the China Society for Hydroelectric Engineering. "They now feel the pressure of emissions and the only way to solve the problem is by nuclear or hydropower, but the volumes from hydro are much bigger than nuclear and nuclear has its own problems."
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Ed Lane)