China starts Baihetan hydro project, the biggest since Three Gorges

The giant Baihetan hydropower plant is located on the border between the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.
The giant Baihetan hydropower plant is located on the border between the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - The giant Baihetan hydropower plant on the upstream branch of China's Yangtze River began generating electricity for the first time on Monday (June 28), state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The project's first two 1-gigawatt (GW) turbines will go into formal operation after a three-day trial, CCTV said.

The project will eventually consist of 16 such units, making its total generation capacity second only to the Three Gorges Dam once it is fully completed in July next year.

Baihetan was built by the China Three Gorges Corporation and is located on the border between the south-western provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. It is part of a cascade of dams on the Jinsha River, which is the upstream section of the Yangtze.

Though the Three Gorges Corporation said it was one of China's biggest and most challenging engineering projects, with a dam height of 289m, it has taken only four years to build.

Coverage of the project in China’s state media has been heavy, with CCTV and Xinhua News Agency both focusing on the advanced engineering and manufacturing capabilities required. President Xi Jinping also endorsed the dam in a letter published on Monday.

“As a major project in China’s west-east power transmission programme, Baihetan is the largest and most technically difficult hydropower project currently under construction in the world,” Mr Xi said, adding that he project has marked a major breakthrough in China’s high-end equipment manufacturing.

The project is part of a national scheme to generate electricity and deliver it to high energy-consuming regions on the eastern coast, and is also designed to strengthen control over water flows during the heavy summer flood season.

An ultra-high voltage (UHV) electricity transmission line connecting Baihetan to the eastern province of Jiangsu started construction in late 2020 and is expected to launch in 2022.

Another UHV from Baihetan to Zhejiang province, also in eastern China, is waiting for Beijing's approval.

Provinces in eastern and central China with larger populations and more developed economies have been experiencing electricity shortages during peak demand periods.

Additionally, regions that used to rely on coal for electricity generation are scrambling to find clean power sources, mainly from regions in western China, to drive their economies amid pressure from the central government to meet climate change goals.

In its latest five-year plan covering the period of 2021 to 2025, Sichuan province aims to complete the construction of 10 hydropower plants project and start building another seven.

The 10.2GW Wudongde hydro project, built upstream on the Jinsha from Baihetan, was put into full operation in mid-June.

Environmental groups have criticised the large-scale damming of the Yangtze and its tributaries because of concerns that over-engineering of the river has destroyed major habitats and damaged natural flood plains.