Mapping China's Massive West-East Electricity Transfer Project
By David Tyler Gibson
February 20, 2013
New Security Beat, Wilson Center
See link for interactive map:
The Wilson Center's China Environment Forum is proud to announce that we
are launching our first interactive infographic: a map of China's
West-East Electricity Transfer Project. The map underscores China's
energy and water imbalances and the looming choke point China faces in
terms of water, food, and energy security. The map also illustrates how
consumer goods made in China's factories along its eastern coast are
powered by coal and hydropower in the country's western provinces.
Feeding the Beasts
Mammoth infrastructure development is keeping China's economic engine
running at a fast clip. Nevertheless, China's urban and industrial
centers on the east coast still face energy shortages, in large part
because most wind, coal, and hydro power plants are concentrated in the
country's inland provinces. China's northern grain belt also faces water
shortages as increasing coal production uses more and more water.
Instead of addressing the sources of these water and energy imbalances
through conservation and other demand management techniques, China's
policymakers are "feeding the beasts" by undertaking two huge
The first is the South-North Water Transfer Project, the largest
infrastructure project in the world, which will eventually transfer 35
billion cubic meters of water every year from China's wet south to its
The second is the West-East Electricity Transfer Project. Initiated
during the 10th five-year plan (2000 to 2005), the project is designed
to bring investment and development to China's lagging west while
satisfying the growing electricity needs of the country's eastern provinces.
The project's first phase has been and is continuing to expand the
western provinces' electricity-generating capacity, primarily through
the construction of new coal bases and hydroelectric dams. The second
ongoing component is the construction of three electricity-transmission
corridors that connect newly built generation capacity in the north,
central, and south to the coast (see arrows on map).
Each of the corridors is expected to exceed 40 gigawatts in capacity by
2020 - a combined capacity equivalent to 60 Hoover Dams. The seven
recipient provinces - Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanghai, Zhejiang,
Jiangsu, and Guangdong - together consume nearly 40 percent of China's
Yunnan's Nuozhadu Dam on the Mekong River was constructed as a part of
this project, and has been touted as part of the backbone of the
southern corridor, sending two-thirds of its output to Guangdong - the
leading province in export manufacturing.
The controversial Three Gorges Dam is an integral component in the
central corridor, sending 35 percent of its electricity to the Yangtze
River Delta - China's second largest manufacturing region, behind
Guangdong. The southern corridor also receives energy from the Three
Gorges Dam, albeit only about 16 percent of the dam's output.
Also along the central corridor, the longest, single ultra-high voltage
direct current line in the world connects the Xiangjiaba dam on the
Yangtze River (between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces) to Shanghai. It is
1,287 miles long and has a capacity of 6.4 gigawatts.
"Made Possible by Coal and Water"
Though the West-East Project brings energy security to the east coast,
it exacerbates water and food insecurity in the fragile ecosystems of
the west. Because China's eastern economic powerhouse provinces rely on
western-made electricity, the energy sectors in the west take priority
over local residential and agricultural water users.
These conflicting demands are creating vulnerabilities - or choke points
- that China must address to sustain its current growth.
For example, in addition to providing hydroelectric power to Guangdong
and elsewhere, Yunnan's rivers are being diverted north as part of the
South-North Water Transfer Project. But the region is now three years
into a serious drought. This creates tension between local agricultural
needs and those of Yunnan's dependents, and if the south and the north
experience drought at the same time and Guangdong province is still
demanding power from Yunnan, the situation could potentially be much worse.
In fact, Yunnan's drought has already had impacts in Guangdong. In the
summer of 2011, factories in Guangdong province were asked to cut power
at different hours of the day for varying lengths of time because dams
in Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan were producing electricity far below
capacity - some as low as 10 percent of normal daily output. In total,
during early 2012, reserve hydropower capacity in the three provinces of
the southern corridor was down 47 percent year-over-year, thanks to the
But perhaps even more troubling, the West-East Electricity Transfer
Project illustrates how the Western world is driving the increasing use
of coal and hydropower in China. Indeed, much of the electricity
produced from coal and hydropower in western China is transmitted across
the country to factories making cheap goods for Western customers. It
seems that in addition to "made in China," most of our consumer goods
should perhaps say, "made possible by coal and water."
A full-size version of the map is available here:
David Tyler Gibson is a research assistant for the Wilson Center's China
Map Credit: James Conkling, fellow at Amnesty International, and David
Tyler Gibson. Special thanks to Zifei Yang for her help in finding the
data, and Jennifer Turner, Susan Shifflett, Aubrey Parker, and Katie
Beck for their valuable input.
Sources: ABB, China Data Online, Circle of Blue, The Economic Observer,
The Economist, State Grid Corporation of China, U.S. Department of the
Interior Bureau of Reclamation.
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