China turns on world’s second-largest hydropower plant in Sichuan

Domestic News

Days ahead of the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party, a massive showpiece of Chinese engineering began cranking out electricity in Sichuan Province. Baihetan Hydropower Station won’t be fully operational for another year, but its opening ceremony was heralded by Party leadership and state media.

illustration of baihetan hydropower station
Illustration by Derek Zheng

Later this week, on July 1, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Today, not coincidentally, a massive showpiece of Chinese engineering and infrastructure construction began cranking out electricity in Sichuan Province.

Baihetan Hydropower Station has turned on the first two of its 16 turbines on the Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, state news agency Xinhua reports.

  • Once fully operational — the remaining construction is expected to take another year — the dam’s ability to produce 16 gigawatts (GW) of electricity will rank “second only to China’s Three Gorges Dam, which runs at 22.5 GW. Construction began in 2017 at a reported cost of more than 300 billion yuan ($46.5 billion),” Nikkei Asia reports.
  • That amount of electricity is enough to meet the needs of 500,000 people and reduce China’s demand for coal by 19 million tons per year, per Sixth Tone.

Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 hailed the station as “the largest and most technically difficult hydropower project under construction,” in a letter read at the plant’s opening ceremony, Xinhua reported (in English, Chinese).

  • Baihetan’s design and construction “fully demonstrates that socialism has been achieved through hard work and the New Era has been achieved through hard work,” Xi said in his letter.
  • The Chinese version of the report also emphasizes the political importance of the Baihetan opening by noting the attendance of Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强, Vice-Premier Hán Zhèng 韩正, and head of the National Development and Reform Commission Hé Lìfēng 何立峰.
  • Xi said that Baihetan should be part of an effort to “make greater contributions to achieving the country’s carbon-peak and carbon-neutralization goals, and promote the comprehensive green transformation of economic and social development.”

But large hydropower projects like these come at a cost. The Associated Press notes that hydropower “is losing support in other countries due to complaints dams flood communities and farmland and disrupt the ecology of rivers, threatening fish and other species.”

  • In China, a key controversy is the relocation of local residents — more than 100,000 people were relocated in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces during the construction of Baihetan, per Sixth Tone.
  • SupChina published a report from Yunnan about one community affected by a dam relocation back in 2019.