China’s first locally made 550MW hydroelectric generating unit went into operation in October, at the Ertan hydro power station in Sichuan Province. The unit was produced by the Harbin Electrical Machinery Works in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province and the Shanghai based Dongfang Electrical Machinery Works.

It was the fifth 550MW generating unit to be commissioned at the Ertan project, which will ultimately total 3300MW. Canada’s General Electric Company (GE) won the contract for the manufacture of all six generating units through the international bidding process. Under the terms of the contract, it could only produce the first two units independently while the third and fourth were to be a joint project of GE and the Harbin and Shanghai firms. The fifth and sixth units were to be produced by the Chinese firms alone.

Ertan power plant, with six 550MW generating units, will become the largest hydro power plant in China when the last unit goes into operation at the end of this year. Speculation about its profitability is already mounting. Unconfirmed press reports allege that the plant is running at half of its present capacity and is making a hefty loss. The fundamental problem is reported to be that Sichuan Province is experiencing an electricity glut after economic growth dropped from 12.6% in 1994 to a predicted 7% for 1999.

Another problem is reported to be that power produced at Ertan is significantly more expensive than that generated by smaller power stations which have sprung up since Ertan was developed in 1991.

The Ertan project includes a 200m parabolic double curvature arch dam, two diversion tunnels, and a mechanical log passing facility with an annual capacity of 1.1Mm3. It brings electricity to the Yalong river region in China’s southwest. It is also China’ first hydro power plant to be built through international bidding. Ertan power plant has produced 3.9B KWh since August 1998, when its first generating unit went into operation.