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The 22.5GW Power Plant - What You Should Know About Three Gorges, China

With the rise of awareness about global warming and climate change, sustainability is a rising trend in commerce and industry. Modern technology and digitalization are driving the sustainability effort across all sectors. 

Hydroelectric power is one of the top sources of sustainable renewable energy, representing 40% of all renewable energy worldwide– more than either wind or solar power. 

Today, there are several massive-scale hydroelectric power dams located throughout the world. Among the largest, two are located in Brazil (with one straddling the border to Paraguay), while one is in Venezuela, and two are in China. The largest of these is the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam in Beijing and Chongqing. 

In this article you can expect to learn everything that you need to know about the Three Gorges dam in China– including its size, dimensions, and power capacity, as well as what makes hydroelectric power so valuable and important for today’s ecological and commercial concerns. 

How Big is the Three Gorges Dam?

Located on the Yangtze River in the province of Chongqing and Beijing, China’s Three Gorges Dam opened in 2003. Three Gorges Dam is 181 meters (almost 600 feet) tall, and 2335 meters long (7770 feet).

The Three Gorges Reservoir that feeds the dam has a mind-blowingly large surface area of 1045 square kilometers, which is about 400 square miles across. The reservoir extends upstream 600 kilometers, or nearly 370 miles, from the dam. The impressive scale of the reservoir is utilized by freighters that travel on this deep water reserve to reach the city of Chongqing. 

This monumental engineering feat cost more than $32 billion to complete. One way to wrap your head around the astounding scale of the dam is that the total mass of the reservoir is so big it can slow the rotation of the entire Earth by 0.06 microseconds. The reservoir holds 39 trillion kg (or 42 billion tons) of water, and can even be seen from space. 

Power Capacity 

In 2021, China’s Three Gorges Dam produced over 100 billion kWh of electricity throughout the year. Over the year, it generated 103.65 billion kWh, making it the world’s largest capacity hydropower plant.

The dam has a 22.5 GW capacity, and in 2020, set the record for the largest volume of hydropower generated in one year– breaking the 100 billion kWh mark.

Advantages of the Three Gorges Dam

Hydroelectric power is generated by the motion of water through the power plant. This endless cycle of water in motion continuously recharges the system to produce electricity that can power homes, cities, and urban infrastructures. 

Since water is recycled throughout the system, this form of power reduces energy and material waste, making it more sustainable. In this section, we will take a look at just what makes hydroelectric power such an advantageous source of cleaner energy, and how the Three Gorges Dam is having a positive effect. 

Cost Effective

Sustainable alternatives to coal can not only help reduce harmful carbon emissions but can also help cut down costs for consumers and businesses alike. For cities, relying on hydroelectric power instead of coal can cut annual costs, making it a sustainable financial choice as well as a renewable energy option. For example, studies show that homeowners who invest in solar for their homes can save around $18,000 over twenty years.

Cut Back on Harmful Emissions 

The amount of hydroelectricity that Three Gorges Dam produces is enough to reduce standard coal by nearly 32 million tons. The huge volume of hydroelectricity can cause a reduction of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere by 19,400 tons and can cut emissions of nitrogen oxides by 20,200 tons. The dam produces enough hydroelectricity to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 86.85 million tons. 

Create a Renewable Water Resource 

The Three Gorges Project provides benefits outside of the electricity produced by the dam. The Three Gorges Reservoir that feeds the dam also provides a significant water resource for urban uses. By collecting and storing rainwater, the reservoir provides a potential source of drinking water, irrigation, and drought prevention. 

Other Environmental Benefits 

The Three Gorges Project contributes to other related environmental projects, including flood control and navigation. The main aim of the Three Gorges Project is to control flooding and stabilize the environmental impacts of the massive dam. 

Energy and Price Stability 

Since river water is a renewable domestic resource, it is flexible and resistant to fluctuations in the marketplace. The energy created by hydroelectric power plants is easy to inject into urban systems in case of widespread blackouts, even as other power sources become unstable or unreliable. 

As sustainable technology continues to evolve, hydroelectric power can be updated to reflect new developments in automation, digitalization, and efficiency. 

Environmental Consequences of Three Gorges Dam 

Any manmade structure of this monumental scale and capacity will create significant effects on its surrounding environment. As big as the Three Gorges Dam is, it has certainly caused severe consequences, including thousands of landslides and earthquakes since its official opening in 2003. 

Problems like this are frequently cited as cause for concern when considering whether or not hydroelectric power plants present a viable and truly sustainable long-term solution to climate crises. 

Because hydropower plants need huge quantities of water upstream to maintain a regular source of water power, flooding is a common side effect. Floods can trigger natural disasters such as earthquakes, destroy farmland, and wreak havoc on the natural habitats (and inhabitants) of wild areas. 

Flooding can also lead to poor quality water supplies, which can have further side effects down the line, with widespread water contamination causing a bevy of health issues for broad swaths of urban and rural populations nearby.

In addition, hydroelectric dams can negatively impact the lives of communities living downstream. By redirecting the natural flow of a river, food chains, and transportation are sometimes permanently interrupted, and flooding can wipe out nearby settlements. 

While hydropower can have positive environmental and social effects– such as reducing carbon emissions, cutting energy costs, and providing a stable water source for drinking water and agriculture, some believe the environmental consequences may outweigh the benefits. 

Automation Potential in Hydroelectric Power 

Evolving technology from artificial intelligence to digital automation is being applied to further the sustainability of hydroelectricity while minimizing the risks. For example, some hydropower plants utilize AI to help develop deep learning algorithms to be used in optimizing water storage. Water may appear to be a seemingly endless source of energy, however only a limited amount of it is available to produce hydroelectricity, so it must be used optimally. For example, according to a report from the International Finance Corporation, Agder Energi in Norway has partnered with the University of Agder to develop an algorithm to optimize water usage in hydropower plants. 

Lessons learned in other power generation environments can help inform automation and digital transformation strategies for hydroelectric facilities like the Three Gorges Dam as well. A recent ISA webinar on digital transformation described how machine learning can be an effective tool to identify corrosion through image analysis. In this example, advanced analytic engines can predict where corrosion issues are developing - an issue whether the facility is a hydroelectric plant or an offshore rig. These analytic engines can then reduce the need for manual analysis by an individual engineer, a process that may also introduce bias. Machine learning also may result in the early identification of potential issues that might otherwise be missed.  

For now, the Three Gorges Dam continues to generate massive quantities of hydroelectricity. The dam continues to present scientists, urban planners, politicians, farmers, and activists with a pressing ecological puzzle to solve. 

Nahla Davies
Nahla Davies
Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed—among other intriguing things—to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.

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