Three Gorges Dam: Power Generation, Economics, and Impact

Gautam Krishnamurthi
December 18, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014


Fig. 1: Three Gorges Dam in 2009. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Three Gorges Dam is a hydroelectic dam that spans the Yangtze River in the Hubei province of China. Construction began on the dam in 1994, and building was completed in 2008. The dam was at full electricity production in 2012. The dam is one of the largest power stations in the world, with the maximum capacity of about 22,500 MW. [1] This dam is one of China's largest construction projects, and it represents the pinnacle of China's development in the 21st century. It has huge benefits for the entire country.

This paper will explore how power is generated in the dam, the economics behind the dam, and the impact that the dam has had on the country.

Power Generation

Fig. 2: Three Gorges Francis Turbine. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Electrical power generation is one of the main purposes of the Three Gorges Dam along with transportation and flood prevention. Power generation at Three Gorges is managed by the China Three Gorges Corporation as well as their subsidiary, China Yangtze Power. The expected annual energy output is expected to be about 84.7 TWh, which makes the Three Gorges Dam one of the biggest energy stations in the world. Power in the dam is generated by 32 Francis turbines developed by joint international and Chinese ventures, with each turbine producing 700 MW of energy. Efficiency of the turbines averages over 94%. Three Gorges was projected to produce 11% of China's electricity. [1] However, with huge electricity demand, Three Gorges could end up contributing much less.


Fig. 3: Birds-Eye View of the Reservoir. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The cost of the Three Gorges Dam was about $24 billion dollars, but some outside sources say that the cost could have been double. [2,3] Funding for the project came from state investment, power generation from the plant as well as others, and bonds. Cost recovery from the dam is expected to come after 1,000 TWh of electricity generated, or about 10 years.


The Three Gorges Dam had both positive and negative impacts that came along with its huge energy generation capacity.

One of the huge impacts that the dam had was on the farmers and other people living in the reservoir area. At least 1.4 million people were displaced by the building of the dam. [3] There were significant funds available to these people as part of the resettlement process, but much of the money has not made it to the people who need it. Other concerns include decreasing sediment levels downstream, which could affect banks downstream and make cities prone to flooding. Finally, there is concern that relics could be lost in the flood area. Many of these relics and sites have been moved or copied to other locations.

There are some huge positive impacts that come with the dam. Most importantly, the dam significantly reduces the risk of flooding downstream and protects millions of people from risk of large-scale flooding. This huge advancement is one of the key selling points of the dam, and something that has been spoken of since Mao Zedong. Furthermore, the discharging of the dam will provide huge amounts of fresh water for agriculture and industry. Also, the dam will provide huge improvements in shipping along the Yangtze River. Capacity at that point will increase from 18 million tons annually to 50 million tons annually. [4] Shipping costs from upstream of the dam to downstream of the dam will decrease about 30%.

© Gautam Krishnamurthi. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "China's Three Gorges Dam Reaches Operating Peak," BBC News, 5 Jul 12.

[2] M. Hvistendahl, "China's Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?," Scientific American, 25 Mar 08.

[3] M. Wines, "China Admits Problems With Three Gorges Dam," New York Times, 19 May 11.

[4] P. H. Gleick, "Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, China," in The World's Water, 2008-2009, ed. by P. H. Gleick et al. (Island Press, 2009), p. 139.