Chinese Hydropower: Investing Idea Or Industrial Complex?

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James Dennin, Kapitall: China loves dams, perhaps a bit too much. We examined Chinese hydropower and the Hydro-Industrial Complex.

Say what you will about China's record on governance, human rights, or the environment. You cannot fault them for not trying to think ahead. 

Maybe it's just that my own country seems about as forward-thinking as a drunken frat boy – I'm already anticipating the next unproductive government battle over Obamacare in about two months - but some of the ways in which China's officials plan ahead is astounding to me. For instance, take what many critics refer to as China's Hydro-Industrial Complex. 

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The only time that China's legislature has ever squared off against party leadership was in 1993, over the Three Gorges Project. The most powerful dam in the world makes the our own Hoover Dam look like a hamster wheel – it generates ten times as much power. And the Three Gorges dam will soon be surpassed by another even larger Chinese hydroelectric project, whose plans were announced this May.

China is obsessed with hydropower, ironically, because they are concerned about the environmental impact of all that coal and oil they're burning. 

Now, it shouldn't be too hard to see why building too many dams also isn't good for the environment. When you dam up rivers, you disrupt the ecosystem, displace communities of residents, and flood huge swaths of land with sometimes polluted water.

However, electricity generated from hydropower release far fewer emissions into the air – and China actually leads the world in renewable energy investment. Much of that money goes into hydropower.

But the fervor for hydropower can sometimes goes beyond reason. For instance, the situation received renewed attention when The Economist investigated plans for a new dam just upriver of the Three Gorges which would utterly eradicate one of China's most fertile regions for farmers.

People need electricity and heat – but they also need food. The new dam, which wouldn't even generate that much electricity in the first place, drew attention to the fact that China's lust for more hydropower sometimes clashes against sound logic. Some of China's leaders are trying to push the country in a different direction, energy-wise. But it remains to be seen whether the trend will take hold. 

Right now China's long-term plan is for about 15% of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. The way forward seems to be hydropower, and China is building more dams, faster than anyone else.