Why Is China The Biggest Producer Of Hydro Energy?

Why is China the biggest producer of hydro energy?

Hydroelectric power is one of the leading renewable energy sources in the world, generating electricity by harnessing the power of flowing or falling water. China has emerged as the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity, with a total installed capacity of over 350 gigawatts as of 2021, accounting for roughly 30% of the country’s total power generation capacity and over a quarter of global hydropower generation. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity at 22,500 megawatts. With abundant water resources, massive infrastructure investments, rapidly growing energy demand, and strong government support, China has managed to develop its massive hydropower potential over the past few decades.

Abundant Water Resources

China has incredibly abundant water resources that make it well suited for hydroelectric dam development. The country has over 50,000 rivers including major waterways like the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers (1). These rivers originate from glaciers and runoff in the Tibetan Plateau, flowing through central and eastern China. Hydro dams can be built along these rivers to generate clean renewable electricity. According to the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research (IWHR), China has the world’s largest technically exploitable hydro energy resources, estimated at 694 gigawatts (2). With plentiful water resources across the country, China has enormous potential to continue expanding its hydroelectric generation capacity.

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Government Support

The Chinese government has heavily prioritized and invested in hydroelectric power development to expand renewable energy capacity and meet the country’s growing energy needs. According to the Global Hydro Power Tracker, China has nearly doubled its hydroelectric capacity since 2008, increasing it from around 200 GW to over 370 GW as of 2020 [1]. The Chinese government has supported large-scale dam projects like the Three Gorges Dam, which is the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity at 22,500 MW. In the 13th Five Year Plan, China aimed to increase non-fossil energy to 15% by 2020 and 20% by 2030, with hydropower playing a major role [1]. The government has invested billions in new pumped hydro storage projects to balance variable renewable energy sources like wind and solar [2]. With strong policy support and financing from the government, China’s hydro capacity is projected to continue expanding in the coming decades.

Increasing Energy Demand

China’s rapid economic development over the past few decades has greatly increased energy demand. According to the Energy Information website, electricity consumption in China rose by 4% in 2022 to 8,220 TWh, continuing a trend of 7% annual growth from 2010-2021. The country needed to scale up energy production across all sources, including hydropower, to meet surging electricity demand.

Industry accounted for over 65% of power use in China in 2021, reflecting the growth of heavy manufacturing, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Residential electricity demand also grew steadily. Overall, China’s total energy consumption expanded nearly 6% in 2021, with especially rapid growth in natural gas, nuclear, and renewable sources like hydropower, the US Energy Information Administration reported.

With energy demand projected to keep increasing as China continues to industrialize and raise living standards, hydropower offered a reliable domestic source to help meet electricity needs without relying heavily on imported fossil fuels.

Technical Expertise

China has developed advanced technical skills and expertise required for building large hydroelectric dams and projects. The country is home to leading research institutes like the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research (IWHR) [1] and the Hydraulic Engineering Department under the National Hydraulic Research Institute (NHRI) [2] that conduct pioneering research in hydrodynamics, dam design, hydropower optimization, and more. These institutes have helped train generations of Chinese engineers and scientists specialized in water conservancy and hydropower. Educational programs at universities like the Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering major [3] also produce qualified graduates that feed into China’s expertise. With a large pool of well-trained talent and advanced research capabilities, China has developed sophisticated techniques for site selection, construction, operation and maintenance of large dams and hydro projects, contributing to its rise as the top hydroelectricity producer globally.

Economic Benefits

Hydroelectric power provides significant economic benefits for China. According to the National Bureau of Asian Research, hydropower projects create jobs for local workers during construction and operation (source). The energy produced is also used to power China’s industrial growth and exports. In fact, China has become a leading exporter of hydroelectric generating equipment, with sales exceeding $1 billion per year. Major state-owned enterprises manufacture hydro turbines, generators, and other components for both domestic use and export markets. This hydro equipment industry employs tens of thousands of Chinese workers while bringing in foreign capital (source).

Environmental Impact

China’s rapid expansion of hydropower has raised concerns over ecological impacts. The Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, has altered water levels and flow, impacting biodiversity along the Yangtze River. According to Scientific American, the dam has flooded key habitats and reduced water flow downstream, threatening endangered species like the Yangtze dolphin and Chinese sturgeon. Upstream, the dam has caused increased erosion and landslides along the reservoir.

Hydropower development in southwest China also threatens biodiversity in the region. Dams and diversions on the Mekong River impact migration and spawning of fish species downstream in Southeast Asia, as noted by Boston University researchers. Overall, China’s hydropower expansion provides low-carbon energy but results in potentially irreversible environmental changes. Sustainable development requires balancing energy needs with ecological impacts.


The Three Gorges Dam project has been controversial due to the large-scale flooding it caused in the surrounding areas. Over 1.3 million people were displaced from their homes to make way for the dam and its resulting reservoir, leading to widespread criticism over forced relocation and loss of livelihoods (source). The impact on local communities and culture has been immense.

Additionally, there are concerns over seismic risk, as the dam was built in an area prone to earthquakes. Some scientists warn that immense pressure on the surrounding land could cause tremors, landslides, and even an earthquake-induced dam failure. This could be catastrophic for the millions living downstream (source).

Overall, while the Three Gorges Dam provides hydroelectric power, its construction came at a huge social and environmental cost that is still being debated today.

Future Outlook

China is likely to continue major investments in hydropower in the coming years. According to Reuters, China’s power demand growth is forecast between 3.5-5% in 2022, down from 10% in 2021. However, China remains committed to increasing renewable energy to meet growing electricity needs and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

The International Energy Agency predicts China will account for 40% of global hydropower capacity growth through 2030. Hydropower aligns with China’s climate goals as a low-carbon energy source. China is still in the relatively early stages of hydropower development compared to its technical potential. With abundant water resources, government support, and technical expertise, China is poised to continue major investments in hydropower projects and technology in the coming decade.


In summary, China dominates global hydroelectric power generation thanks to its abundant water resources, government support, increasing energy demand, technical expertise, and economic incentives. China has the world’s largest river systems and extensive mountainous regions ideal for building hydro dams and reservoirs. The Chinese government has designated hydropower as a renewable energy priority and invested heavily in hydro infrastructure. China’s rapid development and rising populations are also fueling massive growth in electricity consumption that hydropower helps meet in a relatively clean and renewable manner. Chinese companies have developed substantial technical capabilities in hydropower engineering and turbine manufacturing. Hydroelectricity boosts China’s economy through both domestic use and exports. While hydropower has enabled China’s progress, large dams have also created controversies around environmental and social impacts. Going forward, China is positioned to further expand its hydro capacity but must balance this with environmental stewardship and resettlement challenges. Overall, China’s unique resource endowments coupled with strong government backing solidify its standing as the hydro superpower.

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