Reflections of Electric Power Construction in Tibet

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has long been known as the roof of the world. Dangers and difficulties in mountainous areas, harsh conditions in the highland, and a long reign of feudal serfdom have all left Tibet in an uncivilized wilderness while people in the vast majority of the planet have embraced a highly-developed civilization.

Electricity installment in Tibet can be traced back to 1928 when a hydropower station was built in Duodigou, a north suburb of Lhasa, and put into operation with a capacity as low as 92 kW. This station was shut down in 1946 due to aging equipment, putting Tibet back into a world of darkness with no electricity. The whole region relied upon oily trees and lamps for lighting when Tibet welcomed a peaceful liberation in 1951.

Zangmu Hydropower Station, located on the Yarlung Zangbo River, was funded and built by China Huaneng Group, and is now the largest hydropower station in Tibet with a designed installed capacity of 300,000 kW. The first power generation was put into operation in 2014. The installation was delayed until 2014 mainly due to diplomatic efforts in response to a strong reaction from India which claimed the construction had cut off the river from flowing to its lower reaches in India.

Panchen Lama Advised on Hydropower Constructions in Tibet

In March 1955, the State Council decided to dispatch technicians to Tibet to restore the Duodigou Hydropower Station in Lhasa and build a new small-scale thermal power plant in Shigatse, with both projects funded by the State treasury. An 80 kW oil-fired thermal power plant in Shigatse was put into operation in July 1956, and the Duodigou Hydropower Station (660kW) was restored into operation in October 1956, writing a new chapter for electricity development in Tibet.

In 1965, when the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was established, the total installed capacity reached 8240 kW, with annual power generating capacity at 26m kWh. In spite of this, few shepherds in the area had access to electricity, except those living in Lhasa and Shigatse, as Tibet had a small population over a vast territory.

Tibet saw rapid developments in electricity in the 1980s, and completed the construction of the largest geothermal power station in China (with a capacity of 24,000 kW) making use of geothermal energy resources in Yangbajain, which is located in the Northern Tibet Grassland 90 km from Lhasa. A 110 kV electricity transmission line was built from Yangbajain to Lhasa, which has since become the primary power supply facility in Tibet.

At that time I worked for the State Development Planning Commission (SDPC), we were planning to build the Yamdrok Hydropower Station. Yamdrok is a beautiful fresh water lake about 4400 m above sea level, with a water area of 620 sq km. It extends more than 20 km, with a width of just a few kilometers. It has a water storage capacity of 15.4bn cu m. With a nearly 816 m of waterfall from Yamdrok Lake to the Yarlung Zangbo River not far away, it provides a significant opportunity to build the largest pumped storage hydropower station in China.

Panchen Erdeni Lama and Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, who just went through the turmoil of Cultural Revolution, disagreed with the construction of the Yamdrok Hydropower Station. For this reason, the Department of Water and Power and SDPC sent a delegate to discuss with Panchen Lama. Panchen was very open-minded, and said he was worried about the ecological changes that may be caused to the plateau. According to him, as a large body of fresh water, Yamdrok Lake played an influential role in climate control in Tibet. If a huge amount of water was drained for a hydropower station, the water level would be lower and surface area would be reduced, both impacting the ecological landscape of the plateau.

Panchen Lama’s comments made a lot of sense, and the Yamdrok Power Station proposal was revised accordingly. Instead of a hydropower station, a pumped storage power station would be built to discharge water downward at peak hours, to be pumped back into the Lake at off-peak hours, to prevent losing overall water volume. Further, clear instructions were made to keep the minimum water level of Yamdrok Lake at 4437 m. If the lake fell below this level, power generation would be halted. Panchen Lama agreed on the revised proposal and gave a green light for the installation of the Yamdrok pumped storage power station. Yamdrok Lake has been in very good condition since then, and the water level of the lake actually rose, rather than fell.

I Participated in the Power Construction Upsurge in Tibet

As Tibet is a scarcely populated area with limited installed capacity, the five power generation and supply clusters, located in Lhasa, Ihoka, Shigatse, Nyingchi and Chamdo, were independent from one another in the 1990s when I took charge of the electricity sector. At that time, power supply was quite rare in Seng-ge Kambab (located in the Ali area) except for some diesel-fuelled power generation.

After the third and fourth session of the Tibet Working Meeting by the central government, approval was given for construction of a Level 1 hydropower station in Manla and Woka for economic and social development in Tibet. In consideration of harsh living conditions in areas above 4000 m, the construction tasks were assigned to Armed Police Hydropower Troops. Despite low installed capacity, the engineering costs of both power stations were extremely high, and budgetary estimates have been repeatedly overrun. Both power stations were completed and put into operation in 2000 at a very high cost. Power generation authorities in Tibet considered that an EPC turn-key project by armed police troops would cause the government to lose control of the engineering cost, and thus asked TAR to construct such projects by itself going forward.

For this reason, when deliberating the proposal of constructing the Jinhe Power Station (located in the Chamdo area), the government for the first time agreed to appoint the Tibet Electric Power Company Limited as the project entity to take charge of the construction engineering work. Preparations for the Jinhe Power Station construction had been partially completed during the Cultural Revolution, but later the construction stopped. Recently the Wulong Copper Mine has been discovered in the Chamdo area, and electricity power is needed for exploration of the mine. TAR leaders frequently asked for the approval of a power plant in Jinhe when I visited Tibet.

The Jinhe Power Station has an installed capacity of 600,000 kW, a really big installation project for Tibet, and the construction has been funded (totaling RMB 521m) by the central government. I approved the feasibility study report of the Jinhe Power Station in September 2001, and all four 150,000 kw-capacity power generation sets have been connected to the national power grid since August 2004. There were no delays to the construction schedule and the budgetary estimates have been controlled within preset limits for this power station. It is a major power plant for which construction started and completed in Tibet during the “10th five-year plan period”.

Another important task for me after I took charge of electricity power in Tibet was to initiate a power grid network in central Tibet to connect the three independent power stations in Lhasa, Ihoka and Shigatse.

These three places are Tibet’s political and economic centers, and comparatively densely populated. Lhasa and Shigatse are preaching places of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, respectively, and Ihoka is known as the birthplace of Tibetan culture. These three places are in close proximity to one another, making it easier to form a Central Tibet power grid network. The central Tibet network delivered a total installed capacity of 237,280 kw by 2005, contributing most of the power generation for all of Tibet. Now the Tibet region has four regional networks in Central Tibet, Chamdo, Nyingchi and Ali. We plan to connect the Nyingchi network with the central Tibet network going forward. Chamdo and Ali are too far away, excluding the possibility of building an integrated network connecting all regional networks.

The Yamdrok Power Station was intended for pumped storage purposes, but when the construction was completed, there was not enough power capacity for pumping, so it served for power generation only. Another 22,500 kW-capacity generator set has been put into operation during the “10th five-year plan period”, increasing the total installed capacity of Yamdrok Station to 112,500 kW, almost half of the capacity for the Central Tibet power grid. The TAR government strongly requested a 100,000 kW-capacity hydropower station in Zhikong for pumped storage. This required a total investment of RMB1.337bn for the project, most of which would be contributed by the State treasury. The feasibility study report for this project was not approved until November 2002 after growing power electricity demands had been taken into account. The approach of government bearing all funding as previously proposed was overridden, and attempts have been made to adopt a new approach with 80% of total funding (RMB1.07bn) from the State treasury with the remaining 20% covered by loan facilities (RMB 267m) for Tibet Electric Power Company Limited.

Tibet has seen accelerated economic growth since the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was opened for traffic on 1 July 2006. With over 14% growth in power electricity demand, Tibet started to see severe power shortages. Things turned around after four power generating sets were put into operation in Zhikong. The Zhikong Power Station had already been in full capacity when I visited Tibet for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway acceptance in July 2007. It seems that approval for the Zhikong Power Station construction was provided in time, or the power shortage in Tibet would have been worse.

The approval of the Seng-ge Kambab Power Station in the Ali area embarrassed me a lot. Ali is far from Lhasa and is a strategically important place despite its scarce population. In the late 1990s, almost 100 people who have worked in Ali wrote a letter requesting an approval for constructing the Seng-ge Kambab Power Station. I had been hesitant for this approval as the total funding would be as high as RMB426m for an installed capacity of 6000 kw (about eight times the costs for similar projects in the mainland).

To address power electricity demands in the Ali area, I specially approved the construction of a solar photovoltaic power station, and agreed to transfer to Ali the diesel engine sets dismantled from the Lhasa Station. This power generation consumes a significant amount of diesel due to the high altitude and thin air, and power output has also declined. Repeated requests were submitted to me from the Ali area for building the Seng-ge Kambab Solar Photovoltaic Power Station. As the station will use clean renewable energy with zero fuel consumption, it is more desirable despite the high engineering cost for the comparatively low capacity. I finally made up my mind and gave the green light for the construction of this power station in November 2003. With construction commencing in July 2004, this station started to produce electricity on 1 September 2006, and kicked off complete commercial operation by end of 2006. The nights of the Ali area have been bright since then.

The construction of the world famous Qinghai-Tibet Railway commenced on 29 June 2001, and I, as a member of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction Steering Team, was responsible for power supplies during the course of the construction and operation of the railway. In September 2002, approval was given to Tibet for building a 539 km 110 kV electricity line from Nakqu to Amdo, which covers 4 transformer substations and 40 km of 35kV power transmission lines. Power supply engineering, from the commencement of construction in April 2003 to the completion in end of 2005, has proved to be a strong aid to the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. For the section from Tuotuo He to Amdo, the Ministry of Railways made renovations through their own efforts.

Addressing Power Needs of Dispersed Shepherds and Farmers

By the end of 2001, all 1.8m people in Tibet without access to electricity were widely scattered in 460 towns and 5,254 villages.

Since 2002, China launched the “bright program” to transmit electricity to villages mainly through solar photovoltaic power generation. In 2005, actual investment into Tibet totaled RMB1.368bn, and efforts had been made to ensure electricity transmission to 318 villages through 322 photovoltaic power stations. An additional 24 small-scale hydro power stations have been built, with another 73 under construction, to address the power needs of 100 villages.

On 5 July 2007 when I accompanied Mr. Ma Kai (Vice Premier of the State Council) to climb over the 5,040m-high Mila Mountain to visit Tibet, I saw electric poles and porcelain insulators aligned as a result of rural area power grid renovation and upgrading efforts, and electricity was made available to Tibetan farmers and shepherds. I asked one Tibetan about the electricity price, which he said was RMB0.42 per kWh. I also saw a 6 kW capacity photovoltaic power station in a primary school in Maizhokunggar County of Lhasa, which was built by the Basic Industry Department under NDRC. The station was used for lighting, playing videos and watching TV. Tibet has been luminated.

Nevertheless, the shortage of electricity has not been resolved in Chamdo due to 14% growth in electricity consumption, and it demands an independent power grid network for this region, making it unlikely to leverage existing capacities of other areas. On 14 May 2006, the NDRC approved a hydropower station in Xueka village, Bahe County of Nyingchi with an installed capacity of 40,000 kW and a total investment of RMB723m. The Xueka Station is located in the lower stretches of the Basongtso River, and another hydro power station with a capacity of 102,000 kW is expected to be built at the estuary of the Bahe River.

It is my honor that for more than 10 years I have been in charge of the electricity sector, and been engaged in the planning and approval of numerous electricity projects in Tibet. I am very delighted and proud to see the lights in today’s Tibetan Plateau.

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