When it comes to renewable energy, there are few areas where China is not a dominant player, even in areas such as Offshore Wind where countries like the UK and Germany hold a lead, China will soon overtake them in capacity. However, whilst many renewable energy advocates focus on solar and wind energy, one area that China holds a significant dominance in is hydropower. China is home to some 87,000 dams and has a hydroelectricity capacity estimated between 500GW-600GW making it the countries second largest source of energy. Its hydropower capacity is double second placed Brazil. It is logical that with such a national competence in hydropower, that it would be a core part of the ambitious renewable energy strategy of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This article will provide a survey of the use of hydropower in the BRI.
Hydropower has a complicated relationship with the rest of the renewable energy space. The environmental impact of setting up a dam and the destruction of animal habitats is well attested. Outside of China many countries have hydropower as a legacy of time periods where such impacts were not considered, despite this, the contribution of hydropower to most countries’ (that have it) grid is significant. Countries such as Norway, Iceland and Costa Rica all have significant hydroelectric capacity. The result is that whilst hydropower is clean energy, it is not consistently viewed as such. In California, hydropower is not considered a clean energy source and there are moves to try and demolish four existing dams on the Klamath River (this would be the largest dam removal project in US history).
Given the controversy surrounding hydropower there are at least 10 schemes that are part of the BRI. Its useful to understand the reasons behind supporting hydropower as part of the scheme:
The table below highlights the key projects included under BRI:
China has about 36 renewable energy investment projects in BRI countries, with an installed capacity of 15.75GW (China as the project owner or investor). With around 10 of these schemes including hydropower or involving a hydropower business, the technology is well placed to reap the benefits of the BRI. There are two other possible measures of success for hydropower as part of BRI. The first is that it has enabled a proliferation of hydropower to other countries. The second measure will be whether it translates to wider international success for Chinese businesses in the emerging pumped hydro storage market. Whilst undoubtedly pumped hydro also carries several of the same environmental hazards and biodiversity risks as hydropower, it does not attract the same opprobrium.
However, it is possible to overstate the case for hydropower being the biggest winner. It certainly has done well so far from BRI, but as the scheme widens, it is likely that solar and wind energy will become more dominant. As technologies they are more popular, more flexible – especially geographically and supported by large domestic manufacturing bases.