China leads the world in deployment of hydropower, with roughly 28% of global hydropower capacity. As of the end of 2018, China had roughly 352 GW of hydropower. China’s hydropower capacity is more than three times that of any other nation.[9]

China also leads the world in new hydropower construction. In 2018, China installed 8 GW of new hydropower capacity.[10]

In 2018, hydropower accounted for roughly 18% of China’s electricity generation and 19% of China’s installed power capacity.[11]

The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest dam, with an installed capacity of 22.5 GW. Located on the Yangtze River in Hubei, the Three Gorges Dam became fully operational in 2012.[12]

Most Chinese hydropower development is in the western and southern parts of the country. Northern China has very little hydropower development. (See map below.)


Figure 9-2

Chinese hydropower production plays an important role in limiting Chinese emissions of heat-trapping gases:

  • In 2018, Chinese hydropower produced 1233 TWh of electricity. If the same power had been produced from coal-fired power plants, those plants would have emitted roughly 1.1 Gt of CO2(using generally accepted international emissions factors). 1.1 Gt of CO2is roughly 3% of global emissions and more than the total CO2emissions from Germany.[14]
  • The Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA) estimates that during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020), hydropower will supply roughly 5600 TWh of electricity in China. The NEA estimates this will avoid roughly 3.5 Gt of CO2(a slightly more conservative calculation of avoided CO2than the one just above).[15]


The Chinese government has a longstanding commitment to expanding the nation’s hydropower capacity. Planning for the Three Gorges Dam began in the 1980s, as part of a broader program to use China’s hydro resources for development. Chinese hydropower development grew steadily through the 1990s and began to accelerate rapidly in the early part of the last decade. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015) set forth an ambitious target for hydropower—30% growth in capacity, from roughly 200 GW to 260 GW. This target was exceeded, with China reaching 319 GW of hydropower capacity in 2015.[16]

Hydropower development remains a priority of the Chinese government. The 13th Five-Year Plan includes a target of 60 GW of new hydropower capacity, to reach a total of 380 GW of hydropower capacity by 2020 and 470 GW of hydropower capacity by 2025. (All figures above include pumped hydro.)[17]

The 13th Five-Year Plan also contains a goal of 40 GW of pumped hydro capacity by 2020 and 90 GW by 2025. In November 2014, NDRC released a paper on pumped storage hydropower plants. The paper stated the following:

  • Goals in the next decade include (1) accelerating the construction of pumped hydro plants, (2) more sophisticated and effective regulations and standards, including strategic planning and standardized administrative processes, and (3) bringing in more technical equipment and cutting-edge technology.

  • More research is needed on using pumped hydro in connection with solar and wind projects.[18]



[9] According to IRENA, the top countries for hydropower capacity as of year-end 2018 were China (352 GW), Brazil (104 GW), the United States (103 GW) and Canada (81 GW); IRENA, Renewable Capacity Statistics 2019at pp.6–8. See also REN21, Renewables 2019 Global Status Reportat table R16 (with slightly different figures). See also China, International Hydropower Association (accessed August 22, 2019).

[10] China Energy Portal, “2018 Electricity & Other Energy Statistics”(January 25, 2019); IRENA, Renewable Capacity Statistics 2019at pp.6–8. See also REN21, Renewables 2019 Global Status Reportat table R16(with slightly different figures).

[11] IRENA, Renewable Capacity Statistics 2019at p.14; REN21, Renewables 2019 Global Status Reportat table R20; China Energy Portal, “2018 Electricity & Other Energy Statistics”(January 25, 2019).

[12] “Three Gorges Dam,”Encyclopedia Britannica(accessed June 23, 2019).

[13] “Spatial distribution of hydropower resources and production in China,”Nature.com; see also “Mapping China’s Dams,” https://bchellaney.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/chinas-new-dam-projects1.gif.

[14] China Energy Portal, “2018 Electricity & Other Energy Statistics”(January 25, 2019);http://blueskymodel.org/kilowatt-hour(1 kWh of electricity from a coal-fired plant produces on average 0.9 kg of CO2);https://www.quora.com/Where-can-I-find-data-for-CO2-emissions-per-MWh-for-electricity-sources-for-example-coal-vs-nat-gas(1 kWh of electricity from a coal-fired plant produces 1.0 kg of CO2). 1 Gt = one trillion (1012) kg. 1 TWh = 1 billion (109) kWh.

[15] NEA, China’s Hydropower 13th FYP (2016–2020)at p.27.

[16] NEA, China’s Hydropower 13th FYP (2016–2020)at p.2.

[17] NEA, China’s Hydropower 13th FYP (2016–2020)at p.7.

[18] NEA, China’s Hydropower 13th FYP (2016–2020)at p.7; NDRC, “国家发展改革委关于关于促进抽水蓄能电站健康有序发展有关问题的意见” [Suggestions on Promoting the Healthy Development of pumped storage hydropower plants](November 2014).

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