China’s Sichuan provincial government has moved to restrict construction of small and medium hydropower projects between 2016 and 2020 in an effort to improve grid planning and efficiency.

Policy proposals posted on the Sichuan government’s website in October seek to prohibit small-scale hydropower projects and limit medium-sized plants over the next five years. Reuters reported this October that the government will instead work to improve planning to cut waste, noting that senior power company executives had accused the province of allowing a large number of firms to build plants “with scant regard for overall planning.” The news agency also said that the neighboring province of Yunnan has also restricted small hydro projects on the Nu River because it wants to encourage construction of several large projects on that river instead.

The measure is a significant development for the southwestern Chinese province that had 67.59 GW of installed hydropower capacity at the end of 2015 (Figure 4)—around a fifth of the nation’s hydropower total. Sichuan is also a key part of China’s West-East Electricity Transfer Project, an initiative to transmit power from China’s resource-rich west to the energy-strapped east via high-voltage lines.


4. A giant stirs. In late 2015, China Guodian subsidiary GD Power Development Co. put into operation the first three (out of four) 660-MW units of the Dagangshan hydropower project on the Dadu River in Sichuan Province. The final unit was to be completed in 2016, but POWER is unable to confirm that unit’s operation. Construction at the project began in September 2005. Courtesy: Chengdu Engineering Corp.

According to the International Hydropower Association (IHA), China added 19.4 GW of new hydropower capacity—including 1.2 GW of pumped storage—during 2015, bringing total installed hydropower capacity in the country to 320 GW (including 23 GW of pumped storage). Hydropower accounts for about 20% of China’s total power generation.

The country set out and largely met ambitious goals for hydropower development in its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015). However, in its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020), China foresees a comparatively paltry increase of only 20 GW, to 340 GW by 2020. The cap likely takes into account a severe overcapacity problem across China’s power sector, which has been worsened by sluggish demand for electricity due to an economic downturn.

China has already moved to block new coal capacity in an effort to control air pollution as well as deal with widespread underutilization of existing assets. On April 25, 2016, the National Development and Reform Commission and National Energy Administration suspended or slowed plans for more than 100 GW of planned coal-fired capacity—nearly 200 plants that are in development but not yet under construction—to curb overcapacity in the generation sector. The central government took even more drastic steps in October, halting construction on at least 30 additional plants. The 13th Five-Year Plan released in March, meanwhile, calls for the reduced use of untreated coal—as well as a diminished demand for coal.

At the same time, China has curtailed vast amounts of wind and solar energy, particularly in the western parts of the country, owing mostly to transmission bottlenecks. In 2015, at least 15% (33.9 billion kWh) of China’s wind power was curtailed, up from 8% a year earlier.

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)