China leads the world in deployment of hydropower. Roughly 30% of global hydropower capacity is in China. China’s installed hydropower capacity is more than three times that of any other nation.7

China also leads the world in new hydropower construction. In 2017, China installed 9 GW of new hydropower capacity—roughly 40% of the world total. More than one-third of the growth in global hydropower capacity through 2021 is projected to be in China.8

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 2012.9

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

Hydropower Capacity and Deployment

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

  • In 2017, Chinese hydropower produced 1,194 TWh of electricity. If the same power had been produced from coal-fired power plants, those plants would have emitted roughly 1 Gt of CO2 (using generally accepted international emissions factors). One Gt of CO2 is roughly 3% of global emissions and more than total CO2 emissions from Germany.11
  • The Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA) estimates that, during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020), hydropower will supply roughly 5,600 TWh of electricity in China. The NEA estimates this will avoid roughly 3.5 Gt of CO2 (a slightly more conservative calculation of avoided CO2 than the one just above).12


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 2015.13

Hydropower development remains an important 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 2025.14 (All figures above include pumped hydro.)

The 13th Five-Year Plan also contains a goal of 40 GW of pumped hydro capacity by 2020 and 90 GW by 2025.15 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.16



7. As of year-end 2017, the top countries for hydropower capacity were China (313 GW), Brazil (100 GW), Canada (81 GW) and the United States (80 GW). REN21, “Renewables 2018” at table R17. See also IRENA, “Renewable Capacity Statistics 2018.”

8. China Energy Portal, “2017 Electricity & Other Energy Statistics” (February 6, 2018); REN21, “Renewables 2018” at table R2; IEEFA report, “China’s Global Renewable Energy Expansion” (January 2017) at p.3, para.1, http://ieefa. org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Chinas-Global-Renewable-Energy-Expansion_January-2017.pdf.

9. Three Gorges Dam,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Three-Gorges-Dam (accessed July 4, 2018)

10. “Spatial distribution of hydropower resources and production in China,” Nature.com, http://www.nature. com/articles/ncomms14590/figures/2; see also “Mapping China’s Dams,” https://bchellaney.files.wordpress. com/2011/12/chinas-new-dam-projects1.gif.

11. See NEA News Release (January 24, 2018), http://www.nea.gov.cn/2018-01/24/c_136920159.htm; http:// blueskymodel.org/kilowatt-hour (1 kWh of electricity from a coal-fired plant produces on average 0.909 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 = 1012 kg. 1 TWh = 109 kWh.

12. NEA, “China’s Hydropower 13th FYP (2016–2020)” at p.27, http://www.nea.gov.cn/135867663_14804701976251n.pdf.

13. NEA, “China’s Hydropower 13th FYP (2016-2020)” at p.2.

14. NEA, “China’s Hydropower 13th FYP (2016-2020)” at p.7.

15. NEA, “China’s Hydropower 13th FYP” at p.7.

16. 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), http://www.sdpc.gov.cn/ gzdt/201411/t20141117_648312.html

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