thirst for oil came up again in last night's presidential debate.
George W. Bush applauded the Administration's efforts in the Middle
East, saying they were necessary because of US reliance on oil from
the region. And Al Gore said the country should pursue energy sources
and technology that are kinder to the environment. Other nations are
responding in their own ways to their dependence on fossil fuels.
In the second story of our four-part series, The Worlds Odilon Couzin
tells us about China's efforts to expand its use of water power.
electricity, on a small scale, in China
October 12, 2000
with sound of people talking in a room)
The Eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou has long been famed for its beauty
and lakes -- more than 700 years ago, Marco Polo called it one of
the most splendid cities in the world. Now, like most Chinese cities,
Hangzhou suffers from the ill effects of rapid industrial growth.
An old coal-fired power plant looms over one city neighborhood,
keeping the sky a uniform grey. Factories and a quickly growing
fleet of cars and trucks -- many with little or no pollution controls
-- make the roadside air almost unbreathable.
The Chinese government is trying to combat the pollution problem:
Its passed regulations on everything from catalytic converters to
Styrofoam lunch containers, and across the country aggressive reforestation
projects are underway, but in most cities, including Hangzhou, change
has been slow.
Drive 50 miles outside of Hangzhou and the air quality improves
dramaticallyŠand that's not just because you're in the countryside.
Shunchu (in Chinese with translation): Nearby villages used to depend
on wood for power, which created both deforestation and heavy pollution.
Hydro power is a clean solution, and fits into the government's
new push for environmental protection.
Shen Shunchu is the assistant director of the sprawling Moganshan
reservoir and hydro-electric power plant. It not only generates
electricity but provides drinking water for surrounding villages
(sound from inside power plant)
Inside, the plant is surprisingly small. A single room houses
the facility's lone turbine, and the operations -- largely automated
-- are monitored from a small adjoining control room. Shen Chuqing
is in charge of engineering at the power plant and says the simple-looking
operation is actually a state of the art small hydro facility. It
was completely overhauled last year.
(Shen speaking in Chinese)
Shen says with the new equipment they've almost doubled electricity
production, and now only need half the staff. They expect to pay
back the cost of the new equipment within a few years, and whatever's
left will go into maintaining the small nature reserve surrounding
the reservoir. The new equipment was provided by the East Asian
Regional Center for Small Hydro Power, a government-run agency back
in Hangzhou that promotes small hydro projects in China
The center is part of a new trend here: investing in clean power.
The government recently poured an estimated $7 billion into the
research and construction of small hydro projects. Those project
now provide nearly a hundred million Chinese villagers with electricity.
Developing clean power sources is an urgent priority for China.
Its impressive economic growth has relied almost entirely on dirty
power like coal and wood, and the cost has been quality of life.
The director of the Hangzhou Center Liu Yong , says everything from
lung disease to increased flooding can be blamed on deforestation
and air pollution, and that small hydro is a cheap, clean alternative.
Liu: We need power to keep growing
the economy. In the countryside, if they don't have hydro power
they have to rely on burning coal or trees, because they need power.
But with electricity they can both protect the environment and have
cheap dependable power.
But clean power for China is not only a Chinese concern. The US
department of Energy has been trying to help the Chinese government
move over to sustainable energy, including small hydro. US department
of Energy researcher Debra Lew helped host a recent conference on
renewable energy in Shanghai. Lew says China is especially well-suited
to small hydro. It's home to three of the world's longest rivers,
and much of China's history has been spent trying to contain those
rivers. With its low start-up costs, many here say small hydro not
only provides much-needed energy, but also holds out hope of finally
harnessing the rivers' power.
Law: Small hydro is actually one of
the huge success stories of China. China's been, they're very successful
in lots of renewable energy programs...but especially in small hydro,
probably more so than in any other country...they've got quite a
bit of capacity to design, build, install, operate and maintain
small hydro, and they export it to other countries.
But Lew admits that China has a long way to go before it outgrows
its reliance on coal, which still accounts for two-thirds of China's
power. And until recently, China concentrated on nuclear or large
hydro power as substitutes.
Critics say China's success with small hydro is deceptive and
future plans unrealistic. They claim the Chinese government isn't
pursuing hydro power in a renewable fashion, instead it's concentrating
on huge money-draining projects like the Three Gorges Dam. That
dam will be the world's largest when it's completed in 2008 -- but
over a million people will be displaced in the process and hundreds
of villages flooded by the dam's reservoir.
Doris Shen is the China coordinator for the California-based International
Rivers Network. she says Three Gorges is eating up funds that would
be better used on small hydro projects like the one near Hangzhou.
Shen: When you look at the numbers,
you see that microhydro is definitely the way to go, but what you
see is a trend of more money going to large hydro and the question
is "Why is this happening? Why are uneconomic programs being pushed
(Sound from the street in Hangzhou)
At the Center for Small Hydro in Hangzhou, director Liu Yong agrees
with at least some of the criticism. Though his center is state-run,
Liu is suprisingly frank when it comes to assessing the "large hydro"
projects so popular with state planners.
Liu (in Chinese with translation): Large dams may be more efficient
in terms of cost per watt, but it has other costs like pollution,
the dislocation of people that have to be considered. Small hydro
power has much less serious impacts on local populations and ecosystems.
And the real beneficiaries of expanded hydro projects -- critics
say -- are neither Chinese burearucrats nor Chinese consumers. Again,
Doris Shen of the International Rivers Network.
Shen: The era of large dam building in the
US is now over, it's dead. But the industries are still around,
pushing these projects and seeking market in countries like China.
Shen says the Chinese government's mistaken policies are visible
in a proposed dam project in Sichuan province, where a 2000 year
old irrigation system that continues to provide water for one of
the country's most fertile plains is slated to be replaced by a
new and very large dam.
But there are encouraging signs for small hydro. At the Moganshan
small hydro plant near Hangzhou, the staff hosts yet another visit
by a group interested in reproducing such power stations across
China. The central government is giving them a boost. The latest
five year plan includes funding for 400 new small hydro projects.
And with only a fifth of the country's potential small hydro developed,
there's still plenty of room for growth.
For The World, this is Odilon Couzin in Beijing.