Argument: China needs greater energy efficiency not the TGD

Issue Report: Three Gorges Dam


  • Vaclav Smil, Ph.D. “Damming the three Gorges”. Missing Energy Perspectives, Chapter 9. Retrieved 2.08.08 – “China’s Need for Electricity All justifications of the Three Gorges Project, including the CYJV study, assume that China needs sustained and substantial increases in electricity generation for a central grid network. They anticipate that the average annual demand for electricity will grow by 8 percent until the year 2000 (doubling in less than 9 years), and by 5 percent during the first decade of the new century (doubling in 14 years). For the areas to be supplied by the Three Gorges Project – Central China, East China, and Eastern Sichuan – demand is expected to increase from 20.6 gigawatts (GW) in 1985 to about 70 GW by the year 2000 and to just over 120 GW in 2010.
[…]At first sight, there appears to be nothing questionable about these figures and they seem to provide the obvious rationale for going ahead with the dam: China is in great need of electricity. But a very different perspective unfolds by looking closely at how and where electricity is currently used. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment reports that it is the orientation of China’s industry and its inefficient use of energy which are to blame for energy shortages, rather than a lack of energy supply.3
China’s heavy industries, such as iron and steel manufacturing, and chemical processing, consume about 65 percent of the country’s electricity supply. In 1987, China’s steel industry consumed roughly two times more electricity to produce one tonne of steel than western and Japanese steel producers. Similarly, for the production of sulphuric acid (a basic compound for many chemical processes), and ammonia (used to synthesize urea, China’s leading nitrogen fertilizer), Chinese plants consume anywhere from three to six times the amount of electricity used in western countries.4 Combined with China’s generally low efficiencies for fuel combustion and electricity generation, this makes China one of the world’s most energy-intensive economies.
China consumes seven times as much energy as Japan to produce one unit of gross national product (GNP). Even compared to other poor, populous nations such as India, Indonesia, and Brazil, China’s heavy industry accounts for over half of the country’s GNP,** which is an inordinately high share.
China’s orientation towards heavy industry means that most of the country’s energy is being wasted. The bulk of China’s heavy industry and technology are of the 1950s vintage and are under the control of cumbersome government bureaucracies. As a result, they are inadequately maintained and operated, and since more than nine-tenths of all electricity is sold by the state at artificially low prices, there is little incentive to upgrade systems and improve their performance. The Three Gorges Project, which is intended to provide more state-subsidized electricity to the inefficient industrial sector, would not eliminate China’s energy shortages, but would perpetuate existing wasteful practices.
Because so much energy is currently wasted in China, the immediate potential for improving and expanding energy services, without building new generating plants (coal, nuclear, hydro), is vast. In fact, the electricity now required by the Chinese economy – 80 percent of which is devoured by the industrial sector – could be delivered using just 60 percent of the country’s existing hydroelectric generating capacity. This amounts to electricity savings of 270 terawatt-hours or nearly four times the output at Three Gorges. Another, more conservative estimate of improvements in industrial energy efficiency over two decades – the time which would be required to put the Three Gorges Project into full operation – amounts to an annual saving of at least 70 terawatt-hours, or the equivalent expected annual output from the Three Gorges Project which could be used elsewhere.
Rather than building the Three Gorges Project, a gradual shift in China’s industrial structure and a widespread improvement in energy use is achievable by a combination of off-the-shelf technologies, improved system management and price reforms. Critics of the Three Gorges Project within China agree that, in an overwhelming number of instances, these changes would be less capital intensive than building new generating plants. Such a strategy would have the added advantage of providing more employment and improving the competitiveness of China’s industries without creating costly environmental impacts, such as those anticipated at Three Gorges.6 In fact, an increasing number of energy experts agree that economic prosperity increases with the greater availability of useful energy services rather than with the greater supply of fuels and electricity used wastefully.
Another energy-saving strategy would be to expand light industries, such as food processing, textile manufacturing and consumer electronics, which would require only one-quarter the amount of energy used by heavy industry7 to produce an equivalent value of industrial output. If light industries increased their share of total industrial output by just 7 percent, 30 terawatt-hours of electricity could be saved each year, or about 40 percent of the expected annual output at Three Gorges.”