China Brings High-Elevation Hydropower Project Online

The first unit of one of the world’s highest-elevation hydropower plants began operating in China in April. China Energy said the Maerdang hydropower station (Figure 1), sited at more than 16,000 feet above sea level in northwest China’s Qinghai Province, came online on April 1, with the initial unit’s 550 MW of generation capacity expected to provide 13.2 GWh of electricity daily. Gu Faming, deputy head of the mechanical and electrical center of the Maerdang station, said the plant when fully operational could provide about 15 TWh of electricity annually.

1. China Energy said the Maerdang hydropower station, located more than 16,000 feet above sea level, is the company’s first integrated clean energy facility, and includes solar power and energy storage. Courtesy: China Energy 

The Maerdang station, designed to have 2,200 MW of generation capacity when complete, is located on the upper reaches of the Yellow River. It is the highest-altitude plant in that basin, which includes other major hydro projects including the 1,280-MW Longyangxia station, which has operated since 1992 with four 320-MW units. Another large project in the region is Yellow River Yangqu, under construction since 2021 with the first unit expected to enter operation in July of this year. The 1,200-MW Yangqu station is expected to be fully operational in 2025. It will feature three 400-MW Francis turbines. Yangqu is located upstream of Longyangxia, and is one of three new cascade hydro stations planned in that area. The other projects are the Ciha and Bando hydropower plants. China Energy said Maerdang will be the company’s first integrated clean energy facility involving hydropower, solar power, and energy storage. The company said the project includes a 750-kV ultra-high-voltage substation, the highest of its kind in China, that was put into operation in September 2023 to serve the hydropower station. Li Jingchang, technical director at PowerChina Northwest Engineering Corp., designed the Maerdang station. Jingchang said the facility marks a milestone among Chinese hydropower projects, as the first unit came online about 36 months after construction began. China Energy has focused on more rapid construction of renewable energy projects in recent years. The company said it installed a record 320 GW of power generation capacity in 2023, with renewable energy accounting for more than 35% of that total. The International Energy Agency said China had 759 GW of wind and solar power generation capacity installed as of 2022, with a goal of having 3.9 TW of renewable energy online by 2030. China Energy said the new substation has raised the voltage grade of the power transmission network in the Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai from 330 kV to 750 kV. The company said the facility is considered an “intelligent substation,” and is equipped with a counter-unmanned aircraft system, which China Energy said is capable of detecting potential threats from aircraft such as drones. The system has a defense mode that could intercept unidentified drones or other aircraft. China is the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity. The country features many of the largest operating hydro plants, including the 22,500-MW Three Gorges plant on the Yangtze River, the largest power station in the world. —Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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