The May 12th earthquake in western China’s Sichuan Province will have effects reaching further outside China than Beijing is letting on. Sichuan Province holds the key to China’s hydroelectric power generation plans in its renewable power targets and the area is also a hub for worldwide outsourced wind turbine equipment. Both were badly damaged.

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This infrastructure will take months or years to repair, but in the meantime Chinese media report that “The quake in dollar terms is minimal and it seems unlikely to set back China’s economic growth by very much.” I beg to differ.

This earthquake cracked dams and roads, but at the same time it cracked holes in the myth that an ever-expanding China can accommodate an infinite number of companies wanting to open facilities there. We have been hiding behind a wall of outsourcing dependence to solve our domestic pollution and economic problems and that great wall is about to collapse China’s silk road economic belt.

The hydroelectric crutch: The quake zone area generated 62 percent of Sichuan province’s total electricity production by way of hydroelectric dams, of which “396 dams were believed badly damaged and many of the power stations on the river systems were damaged and several major reservoirs are being drained to prevent their dams from failing. The seismic safety of these dams is a concern and it is expected that many of them will need repair and strengthening,” according to Ministry of Water Resources minister Chen Lei.

Even before the quake, Beijing had admitted there are major flaws in many of the country’s 87,000 dams. “Roughly 37,000 dams across the country are in a dangerous state,” Ministry of Water Resources deputy minister Jiao Yong said earlier this year, noting that many had been built decades ago.

Two weeks after the quake, the Water Resources Ministry acknowledged that 69 reservoirs and dams were on the verge of collapse, and nearly 3,000 throughout China had sustained damage.

If the always secretive central government is publishing this type of information, I can only conclude that reliable power from that region is no longer assured. This single set of facts revolving around hydroelectric production in western China is a link in a chain that stretches from China right around to your back yard, and that link has broken.

Don’t count your renewable energy eggs before they hatch: China has more dams than any other country – about half the world’s total. And the 11th Five Year Plan pins its hopes on rapid and massive development of every metre of flowing water in the rivers of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu Provinces in the west to satisfy the insatiable power demand for factories and homes. The Chinese government will now have to reconsider its aggressive dam-building program.

If hydroelectric projects are scrapped there will be continuous permanent electric shortages throughout the country. China’s hydroelectric consumption was around 7% of their total prime energy consumed in 2007.

Pre-quake, the central government was thinking: ‘Sichuan possesses the country’s largest possible reserves of hydropower resources, estimated at more than 110 gigawatts. Yunnan has a number of hydropower stations under construction on the lower- and middle-reaches of the Lancang River, with 11 GW and plans for dozens more projects between now and 2016. Gansu’s abundant Yellow River hydropower resources can provide electricity for the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai, Shanxi, Sichuan and Ningxia, and their further potential is great.’

Not anymore.

The China Electricity Council believes less than 20 percent of the country’s hydroelectric resources are being utilized. According to the pre-quake governmental plan, the hydroelectric installed capacity should have reached 125 GW in 2010, accounting for 28 percent of total installed capacity; in 2015 it could have reached 150 GW and by 2020 the goal was 300 GW. These plans are not likely to go forward as planned. This will leave China far behind its electrical generation goals and far short of the capacity it needs to attract manufacturing businesses to that part of the country.

The slow decline: China’s Go West Campaign is designed to lure college graduates and businesses to western parts of the country, thereby spurring the economy in China’s less affluent interior.

The bait most frequently used by the central government is in the form of Major Economic & Technological Development Zones, Special Economic Zones and City Industry Zones, which confer tax-free status along with preferential transportation and wage agreements. This is great when there is a continuous power supply, but now in the western region that is anything but assured. China’s State Power Grid announced Sichuan’s electricity grid is running at 76% of pre-earthquake levels. Notice how they conveniently leave out the surrounding provinces, which also sustained damage.

A recent article appearing in the China Daily – “China expects power shortages amid surging demand” – quotes the State Electricity Regulatory Commission general office as saying “Guangdong Province would be short of 5.5GW, Guizhou 1GW, and Yunnan 1.5 GW.” Yet again they left out shortages in Sichuan, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanxi provinces to get a reliable total. This will be the fifth consecutive year of power shortages countrywide. Now consider this: the last four years were short with all of the country’s hydropower up and running.

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