China's electric power generation and supply system is being reorganized and expanded to catch up with the voracious needs of the "four modernizations." China ranks seventh in the world in electric power generation -- behind Britain and ahead of France. Total generating capacity is 50 million kilowatts and power output over 250 billion kilowatt-hours per year, according to the official New China News Agency.
However, electric power is one of the "weak links" in the national economy, chairman Hua Guofeng and other Chinese leaders admit. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of the nation's productive capacity cannot be utilized because of the shortage of power. Newspapers complain that in big cities such as Wuhan, the steel mill consumes so much electricity that textile industries producing for export are starved, and domestic consumers must sit in darkness.
(The "four modernizations" refers to China's ambitious plan to modernize agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense and bring the gross national product to a level of $1,000 per capita by the year 2000.)
To remedy this situation, China's leadership emphasizes two tasks: increase output and improve management.
Under the first heading, despite the cut-back in large-scale construction projects ordered as an economy measure last year, priority continues to be given to two large hydroelectric projects and six thermal power plants.
Under the second heading, transmission networks are being reorganized and an all-out campaign is being waged to eliminate waste -- which, according to Mr. Hua, gobbles up 30 billionto 40 billion kilowatts of electricity each year.
The largest hydroelectric project being built in China today is Gezhouba on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River near Yichang. The first stage will be a power station with a capacity of 950,000 kilowatts, the ultimate aim being to generate 2.7 million kilowatts.
In remote Qinghai province, near the headwaters of the Yellow River, another large hydroelectric project under construction is Long Yanxia. The goal here is a generating capacity of 1.6 million kilowatts.
Six thermal plants, all coal-fired, will generate one million kilowatts each. Existing oil-fired plants are to be converted to coal as soon as possible.
China has vast reserves of coal and untapped water resources. Only 2.5 percent of potential hydroelectric power has been utilized until now, the New China News Agency says. In addition to large-scale thermal and hydropower projects, the government encourages the construction of small hydropower stations throughout the nation. There are said to be nearly 90,000 of these stations now with a total generating capacity of 5.3 million kilowatts.
During his visit to China last August, US Vice-President Walter F. Mondale promised up to $2 billion of Export-Import Bank credits to help finance China's hydropower program on a "case-by-case basis." Japan has also pledged government aid for a hydropower project in Fujian (Fukien). But the Chinese will try to rely on their own efforts as far as possible.
They are now turning out generators with a capacity of 200,000 kilowatts for thermal stations. For hydropower stations they say they can produce generators of 300,000 kilowatt capacity.
Nor do the Chinese intend to go nuclear in the near future. Last year they canceled an order for the French to build two nuclear plants. The accident at Three Mile Island was the excuse, but the real reason probably is economy.
As for reorganization of the transmission network, China at present has no centralized supply and management system for electricity. Last June the journal "Economic Management" noted that when power was needed for industrial development in Shijiazhuang (Shichiachuang), capital of Hebei (Hopei) province in north China, a thermal power station was built in neighboring Shanxi (Shansi) province to make use of that province's abundant coal. Once built, however, the thermal station came under the jurisdiction of the Shanxi authorities, who only allowed it to supply Shijiazhuang at night, when their own capital city, Taiyuan , did not require its output.
Although the current economic slogan in China is decentralization, the article argues that in the case of electricity it is far more efficient to have a "centralized and unified administration" rather than the present patchwork of competing provincial and regional networks.
The theme was subsequently taken up by the People's Daily, organ of the Chinese Communist Party. One result was the expansion of the Peking-Tianjin (Tientsin)-Tangshan network through the creation of a North China Electric Power Management Bureau, which includes Shanxi, Hebei, and Inner Mongolia.
Northeast China, where provinces controlled their own electric supply during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), also once again has a unified transmission and supply network. A third regional network, in east China, centers on the city of Shanghai.
China's long-term prospects for electric power development are good. The decision to rely entirely on coal and hydropower seems to be a sound one. But existing bottlenecks are not going to be easily eliminated, and in the words of Politburo member Li Desheng, "For the next year or two power will continue to be in short supply."