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Ecological impacts of small hydropower in China: Insights from an emergy analysis of a case plant


  • Pang, Mingyue
  • Zhang, Lixiao
  • Ulgiati, Sergio
  • Wang, Changbo


The belief that small hydropower (SHP) systems are sources of clean energy with few or no ecological problems has been driving the rapid expansion of SHP plants in China and elsewhere. This paper presents an evaluation of the ecological impacts of SHP based on an emergy analysis of a plant located in Guizhou Province in southwest China. The results suggest that periodic downstream drying-up of the river is the largest contributor to the induced ecological impacts in terms of emergy cost. In 2010, the ecosystem service losses caused by downstream ecosystem degradation totaled 2.35E+18seJ, which accounts for 38% of the total emergy utilized in the annual operation of this plant. If such losses could be avoided, i.e., if the SHP operated as designed, SHP projects would produce relatively modest impacts on the environment. When the reaches downstream of the SHP plant are not affected, the environmental loading ratio (ELR) is 2.20 and the emergy sustainability index (ESI) is 0.93; however, the ELR increases to 3.82 and ESI decreases to 0.38 when river drying-up occurs. These results indicate that China should rigorously investigate potential ecological problems of SHP development and proceed with caution rather than readily believing unjustified assumptions.

Suggested Citation

  • Pang, Mingyue & Zhang, Lixiao & Ulgiati, Sergio & Wang, Changbo, 2015. "Ecological impacts of small hydropower in China: Insights from an emergy analysis of a case plant," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 76(C), pages 112-122.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:enepol:v:76:y:2015:i:c:p:112-122
    DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2014.10.009

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    2. Li, Yun & Li, Yanbin & Ji, Pengfei & Yang, Jing, 2015. "The status quo analysis and policy suggestions on promoting China׳s hydropower development," Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 1071-1079.
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    6. Zhong, Weiqiong & An, Haizhong & Shen, Lei & Fang, Wei & Gao, Xiangyun & Dong, Di, 2017. "The roles of countries in the international fossil fuel trade: An emergy and network analysis," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 100(C), pages 365-376.
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