Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rinsing Away the Failures of Hydropower

[This article about the shutdown of several small hydropower facilities
in Qinghai was published on May 24 by Caixin. Apologies if you've
received this twice. The article offers interesting perspectives on the
potential impacts of unrestrained development of small hydropower plants.]

Rinsing Away the Failures of Hydropower
May 24, 2012 | Caixin
By staff reporter Liu Hongqiao


A plan to buy nearly 20 hydropower plants by the Xining city government
has raised questions over the future of small hydropower in China

Villagers in Qinghai saw their livelihoods sold down the river, only to
be bought back up again by the local government with public funds. This
year, one municipal government quietly rolled out policies to shut down
tens of small hydropower plants, although details are sparse on how much
and who will be funding a policy about-face on small hydropower in the

On April 10, a hydropower station on a tributary of the Huangshui River
in Qinghai Province was shut down after operating for 68 years. Part of
a program launched by the government of Xining, the capital of Qinghai
Province, and the power plant was just one of nearly 20 which are slated
to be purchased back by the government and then closed.

Of these 20 small hydropower stations, eight have been in use for less
than ten years. The Shancheng hydropower station, built in April 2009,
generates only 7.6 million kilowatt hours (kwh) annually. China counts
those with installed capacity of less than 10,000 kilowatts as small
hydropower stations.

Wan Haifeng, director of integrated watershed management for the
Huangshui River, said the 20 hydropower stations in the Xining segment
of the river are diversion-type hydropower stations which "severely
damage the ecological environment."

Diversion-type hydropower stations use canals to lead river water away
and generate power at a relatively low water level. Small hydropower
plants on the Huangshui have always received the support of provincial
and prefectural governments. A 1971 plan on hydropower states that "The
hydropower reserves of the Huangshui and its two main tributaries are
452,400 kilowatts. There are 50 proposed small hydropower stations
recently with total installed capacity of 2,575 kilowatts."

Environmentalists have attacked this type of small hydropower station
because the large amounts of water diverted from the river often result
in downstream water shortages and sometimes transform the landscape by
choking off rivers and killing wildlife.

Qinghai moved to close the small hydropower stations in the Huangshui
watershed due to environmental degradation. "The shutting down of
hydropower stations in the Huangshui watershed is for pollution control,
and for the landscape," said Wan.

The Huangshui River, also called the Xining River, is 374 kilometers
long and the largest tributary in the upper reaches of the Yellow River.
The region is home to 60 percent of Qinghai's population, 52 percent of
its arable land, and more than 70 percent of its industrial and mining
enterprises. Consequently, the Huangshui is known as the "Mother River"
of Qinghai.

With rapid urban development in recent years, the Huangshui's water
quality has deteriorated rapidly. The latest test data from the Qinghai
Province Department of Environmental Protection show that water quality
in most river segments are classified as Category 4, indicating it has
several chemical pollutants and is not suitable for human contact.

"In the 1990s, there were still many naked carp and crucian carp in the
river and you could still fish. Not now. It stinks and it's dirty, like
stagnant water," a Xining resident said.

International water and environmental scholars say that a utilization
rate of above 30 percent for a river's water resources for hydropower
affects the river's self-purification abilities and leads to a slew of
ecological problems. Public materials from the Qinghai Environmental
Protection Bureau show that due to a lack of water, the water resource
development and utilization rate for the Huangshui watershed exceeds 65
percent. In Xining, it is 72.9 percent, far beyond the bright line for
safety. Small hydropower plants are contributing to this
over-exploitation of water resources.

Since the 1990s, Qinghai authorities say they have carried out pollution
treatment policies. The government has not released exact figures on
pollution or studies on the effects of small hydropower in the region.

However, in July 2011, Qinghai Vice Governor Ma Shunqing said at a
Huangshui watershed pollution control work conference, "There will be no
more approvals of hydropower plants in the Huangshui watershed."

The local government says that by shutting down small hydropower
stations on the upper reaches of the river, the landscape features of
the river can gradually be restored, and the river will can recover its
self-cleansing capabilities.

On April 11, 2012, the Sichuan provincial government announced that it
would stop construction of small hydropower stations on a portion of
small and medium waterways. In August 2011, Shennongjia in Hubei
Province announced that it would no longer approve small diversion-type
hydropower stations.

These local governments have only declared that they would stop
construction or prohibit construction of small hydropower plants in some
areas but experts say that barring an explicit policy to ban small
hydropower plants, more could still be built in the future.

The "2011 Qinghai Provincial Government Work Report" still designates
small hydropower station construction as an important part of
agriculture and animal husbandry infrastructure. Statistics show that
Qinghai has theoretical hydropower reserves of 23.4 million kilowatts.
Of this, small hydropower station resources are 13.2 million kilowatt
hours, accounting for half of the total.

Guo Jingshi, director of the Qinghai Health Department Pollution Control
Office said that compared to upstream provinces with abundant hydropower
resources like Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, Qinghai's hydropower
resources are "very few."

Qinghai's differing policies regarding small hydropower stations reflect
the controversy surrounding small hydropower stations.

Since 2003, the Ministry of Water Resources has been actively promoting
"small hydropower stations to replace fuel." The ministry says that as a
clean form of energy, hydropower can replace traditional rural heating
methods such as wood and coal and reduce the destruction of forests to
promote the modernization of rural areas.

According to the "Summary of Rural Hydropower Work" released by the
Ministry of Water Resources in July 2007, 1,600 county-level cities
nationwide have small hydropower stations with the total number of small
stations reaching 45,000 for an installed capacity of 51 million
kilowatts. As of 2008, 300 million rural residents without electricity
had begun using hydropower.

The construction of small hydropower stations in rural areas is still
accelerating. According to Ministry of Water Resources plans, by 2020,
nationwide rural hydropower installed capacity will reach 75 million

Weng Lida, who has been following the problems of small hydropower
stations since 1999, said that small hydropower stations are a
double-edged sword.

Theoretically, sound planning and construction of small hydropower
stations can adjust river hydrology and be beneficial to the improvement
of the ecological environment in addition to resolving the electricity
issues of rural border areas. But at this stage, the disorderly,
excessive development of small hydropower stations has caused very
serious damage to the ecological environment.

"Over the past decade, the development of small hydropower stations has
intensified. The government must do something to the chaotic development
of small hydropower stations while at the same time re-discussing the
relationship between energy needs and the environment," said Weng.

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