TECS 2013: On to Yi Chang and the Three Gorges Dam

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It was hard to say goodbye to Beijing so soon, even though my lungs vehemently disagreed. After a week in the capital we took off to Yi Chang, in the central area of China, to spend two days at the Three Gorges Dam. For the first time in over a week I got to take off for a run with some of the boys, let my legs stretch and catch a breathe of clean (er…) air.

The dam itself was an incredible structure and a monument to the power of human creation. My inner nerd was absolutely overwhelmed. As an environmental engineer who has spent almost half a decade understanding water systems I was especially energized by the trip. Let’s just say this dam blew my damn mind!

This has certainly become a recurring trend on this trip, but I honestly couldn’t wrap my head around the scale of the thing. It was over a mile across and 188 meters high. While the watermark was at a low of 150 meters, it rested at 175 meters during flood season.  On the side was a multi-layer lock system that could lift cargo vessels up and down in series, effectively allowing for augmented navigation up the Yantze River and deeper into western China.

I was in complete awe, but I also couldn’t believe how the surrounding area had been so widely modified by humans. There was more concrete slabwork, civil structures, infrastructure and evidence of anthropogenic impact than I’ve seen in my entire life. The whole thing was inspiring and also somewhat eerie. With a city of over a million people in eyeshot just downstream, my heart raced and mind wandered at the thought of what would happen under conditions of catastrophic dam failure. For some simple perspective there was a wall of water over 500 feet high and 1 mile across sitting in the reservoir behind the dam…

After we saw the dam from a distance on the first day, we got to spend the next morning on a special access tour to see the generators. These things were monstrous machines. Each one generated over 700 MW and the dam had over 32 of them. When we went to see the control room I noticed that the water flux through the current operating turbines was roughly 17,000 cubic meters per second. This is over an order of magnitude higher than any numbers I’ve been exposed to in my fluid mechanics education.

At the end of the trip I revisited my thoughts on size and scale. This one dam provides only 2-3% of the energy needs of the whole country, which seems somewhat small. In reality this is a huge paradox. The dam was bigger and more powerful than anything I have ever seen in my life. Its percentage of total output may be small, but is actually equivalent to 90 billion kilowatt-hours per year (kwh/y), according to one of the dam operators. According to the US Energy Information Administration the average electricity consumption for a typical home is 11,280 kwh/y.  If we assume an average of 4 persons per home and a US population of 320 million, then a simple back of the envelope calculation shows that the same 2-3% of power supplied by the Three Gorges Dam in China could provide for 9.97% of the population in the United States (i.e. 7,978,723 homes).

More than ever, in the shadow of the Three Gorges I began to feel the truly incredible challenges that China faces in managing its population and fulfilling their basic needs. The environmental impacts of the dam and the relocation of 1.2 million Chinese citizens for the dam’s construction were prominent issues in my group’s discussion, but for the sake of keep this blog succinct I will leave that aside for now – although they are absolutely worth further exploration.

As we flew off to Shanghai for our final week, I wondered one thing…

If the decision was on me, would I have built the dam?

*TECS 2013 is short for my adventures with Stanford University's TECS two week immersive business and technology program in China. Over the next two weeks I am travelling from Beijing to Shanghai and meeting with incredible businesses along the way. All posts from the program will be tagged.