Three Gorges Dam Is Complete, But Is It ‘Clean’?

China is calling it the world’s largest “base of clean energy.” Whether the $50 billion Three Gorges Dam qualifies as clean or not, holistically speaking, is debatable. But there’s no denying that the hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River, now operating at full capacity for the first time, is a behemoth and China badly needs the power.

The country’s official news agency, Xinhua, said the final 700-megawatt Three Gorges Dam turbine went online this week, 18 years after work on the project began, kicking generating capacity to 22.5 million kilowatts.

three gorges dam, china

image via Wikimedia Commons

That’s about four times the size of the largest U.S. hydroelectric power plant, at Grand Coulee, in Washington state.

Of course, the era of big dam building in the United States has long since passed, recognition of the profound environmental disruption such hydropower projects can cause. Environmentalists do approve of some carefully done small hydro projects, but not the big stuff like Three Gorges. And make no mistake: Three Gorges is widely considered an environmental disaster.

The 600-foot-high, more than 1-mile-long dam, which began producing electricity in 2003, has created a narrow reservoir some 370 miles long. Erosion, major landslides and earthquakes, devastation to freshwater fish and terrestrial animals, an estimated 1.3 million humans dislocated by the rising waters — the list of its impacts goes on.

But of course there was no talk of that after the 32nd and last of the dam’s large turbine generators was put into operation. Xinhua highlighted the dam’s benefits.

“The project has not only eased power shortages and boosted the country’s economic development, but also played a significant role in developing clean energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” said Li Pingshi, director of the Three Gorges Power Plant.

That statement is a reminder that China is in desperate straits in trying to meet its exploding energy demand — vast now and destined to grow by several times — without destroying any chance of the world getting greenhouse gas emissions under control.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.