By Ye Ruolin and Yuan Ye *
SHANGHAI (IDN | China Dialogue) — The Hunanese experience and other cases demonstrate how this vision may prove difficult to realise. The Baihetan dam, currently under construction on the Jinsha River straddling the border of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, is set to become the world’s second-largest hydropower station after the Three Gorges Dam once it is fully completed in 2022.
From its inception, it was meant to connect to two UHV lines that would send power to Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces on China’s eastern coast. The project has been delayed, however, due to a conflict over who owns its electricity.
The dam’s investor and developer, China Three Gorges Corporation, reportedly hoped to transmit the power directly to the receiving provinces – a common, cost-saving approach. But the provinces, after not showing much enthusiasm during the dam’s planning phase, later hoped to get a share of the electricity to benefit their own economies.
Sichuan reportedly argued the dam’s power should be first loaded into its provincial grid – whereby the province would earn transmission fees – before being sent east. The province also wanted to keep some of the green energy to help reduce local air pollution, says Yang Fuqiang, a senior Beijing-based expert with Peking University’s Institute of Energy.
In the end, the National Energy Administration sided with the provinces, allowing each to keep 10 terawatt-hours generated by Baihetan and another dam on the Jinsha River every year. The dispute delayed central government approvals, causing much of the construction of the UHV infrastructure – including converter stations and suspension towers – to fall behind schedule. The dam, which will eventually produce 62.5 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, may have to curtail its power for at least a year.
The saga calls into question a central tenet of China’s UHV project: that the country’s east will have energy shortages for which energy surpluses in the west and north can compensate. For years, factories have been moving inland, however, encouraged by government policies as well as increasing labour costs and other costs on the coast. “It’s very noticeable that energy-intensive industries are moving westward voluntarily, because electricity costs much more in the east,” Xu Zheng, an electrical engineer at Zhejiang University, tells Sixth Tone.
As a result, the demand for energy is increasing rapidly in China’s western regions. In 2020, power demand from Yunnan and Sichuan grew by over 5% compared with that of 2019, the highest rise in the country, according to official data. “The big picture is clear that we will need more electricity overall in the future,” Xu says. (Researchers estimate China will see a 60% increase in power use by 2030 compared with 2020).
“But would the eastern region still need this much power in the future? Would the west still have enough power to send out? It’s hard to say.”
It’s also unclear how UHV lines would fit into a future liberalised power market. Right now, the electricity they transport are “stiff deliveries” under China’s old-fashioned planning system, says Zhang Shuwei, an analyst with Beijing-based think-tank Draworld Environment Research Center. Power transmitted through UHV lines is commonly delivered in fixed amounts according to fixed prices, based on long-term contracts.
As such, while many of the receiving provinces are trialing liberalized power markets, power imported by UHV lines is often guaranteed a certain amount of use regardless of market circumstances. “The operation of the lines is not considering the dynamics of supply and demand at both ends,” says Zhang Shuwei. “It is basically a privileged line.”
Increasing the usage rates of UHV lines in turn promotes the production of green energy in China’s sunny and windswept western regions, a central government priority. But in ist latest inspection report, the National Energy Administration notes that the amount of green energy transported by UHV lines remains subpar. In the plan it published in early March, the State Grid promised to increase the share of clean energy, including hydropower, in its long-distance power transmission project to 50% by 2025 up from 43% during the five-year period ending in 2020.
And while rivers are currently China’s main green electricity source, Xu of Zhejiang University says there isn’t much more hydropower left to develop in the country. “Further increase of the clean energy share has to rely on adding more new energy (like solar and wind),” he says.
China’s renewable energy law requires governments as well as the State Grid to prioritise green electricity, but loopholes mean the law is treated “more as a guideline,” David Fishman, energy consultant at The Lantau Group, tells Sixth Tone. Using power produced elsewhere can run counter to local interests in recipient provinces.
“The receiving provinces or regions don’t really have the incentive to absorb the wind and solar and to adjust their own operation,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “They don’t want to import from other provinces. They want to produce as much as they can themselves to maximise local GDP needs.”
There are also technological reasons why UHV lines so far haven’t been able to incorporate much green electricity. Currently, most cannot transmit the unevenly produced wind and solar energy alone but need it to be bundled with power from more stable sources, such as coal and hydropower. A pure-green energy mix presents a risk, as its supply could suddenly drop and threaten grid stability.
“The ratio of wind over conventional energy is quite low, usually accounting for one-third of the mix,” says Xu. He says that a new generation of UHV lines can, scientists theorise, handle solar and wind variability. But China’s only such line is being used to transport hydropower, and so the theory remains untested outside the lab.
Another technological solution is pairing renewables with storage, which makes their output less variable and thus more usable by UHV lines. At least six Chinese provinces have so far made storage facilities mandatory for new green energy projects, even though critics say that, with current battery costs, the added expense prices them out of the market. Qinghai, a sparsely populated province in the northwest with plenty of wind and sunshine, offers a subsidy for such projects in compensation.
Meanwhile, the share of renewable energy in China’s power production will almost certainly rise. To reach its 2060 carbon neutrality goal, China has pledged to increase the share of consumed non-fossil fuel energy to 25% by 2030, up from 15% in 2019. Falling prices are also making renewable energy the cheaper choice. “In terms of the economy, renewables are quite competitive,” Wang Fei, an energy expert at the North China Electric Power University, tells Sixth Tone. It poses a challenge to UHV lines.
“If they can show that these lines are running on clean electricity, it will be something that will make China a leader in this, because a lot of other countries find it very difficult to build these kinds of transmission projects,” says Myllyvirta, of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
On 2 March, financial magazine Caixin Global reported that China’s oldest UHV line, between northern Shanxi and central Hubei, could, after 12 years, finally start running closer to its full capacity.
The news came courtesy of a brand-new coal-fired power plant, specifically designed to supply the UHV line with electricity. It had earlier been held up as part of efforts to rein in China’s coal use, but, in 2019, construction was allowed to resume.
* This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence. But was first published on Sixth Tone. Ye Ruolin is a science and technology reporter at Sixth Tone. Yuan Ye is a features reporter at Sixth Tone writing about health, education, and the environment. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 April 2021]
Photo: Zhang Dezhen, a staff member at the Shanghai Fengxian Converter Station, patrols the power converter area. Credit: Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone.
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