ENERGY AND YAK DUNG IN TIBET
Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is weak in energy resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas but has huge hydropower, geothermal, solar and wind energy potential. There are enormous amounts of hydropower and terrestrial heat for generating electricity, and significant reserves of natural gas. Tibetans use solar collectors to heat their yak-butter tea. [Source: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]
In recent years, Tibet has developed sources of green energy, such as solar, wind, and bio-fuels (See Solar Power below). Experimental wind power stations have been set up. In 2011, there plans to build a wind power plant with a capacity of 50 mW in Nagqu in northern Tibet that would open in 2015. Additionally, the government invested more than a billion yuan on helping rural residents build coal gas facilities between 2008 and 2015. [Source: China Daily, May 24, 2011]
Yak dung is still indispensable for cooking and heating for many Tibetan. Generally about the size of a man’s hand, yak dung paddies are laid on a mud wall for drying before they are used as fuel. About 7,000 paddies are needed by a household to get through the winter Some Tibetans get electricity from the grid and from solar collectors but still to burn yak dung for heat as it is cheaper. “Biogas converters” are used by Tibetan villagers to produce fuel for heating and cooking from yak and cattle dung. When asked about their smell one NGO workers said the villages that use them smell better than they did when the burned dried dung directly and the piles of dung patties polluted their drinking water.
Electricity in Tibet
Homes in Tibet have traditionally been lit with light made from butter oil. People were usually in bed in by 9:00pm. These days most places have g electricity. Tibetans with electricity watch Tibetan concerts and American movies on television and have machines that make butter tea. Many people in remote areas have small solar generators. Even nomads have portable ones that can set up outside their tents to generate power to run lights, televisions and VCRs. In the remote village of Zem people have been getting electricity from a solar plant since 2002. The plant cost about $350,000 and supplies electricity for 45 households. The government has built 400 such plants supplying power to 400,000 people.
China invested US$426 million between 2000 and 2008 to build 443 power stations — most of them hydropwer — in villages and towns in rural Tibet. Xinhua reported: Wang Qinghua, the regional electric power bureau head, said 1.93 million Tibetan residents, or 69 percent of the region's total population, had access to electricity, representing a 400-percent increase from three decades ago. In 2007, 180,000 residents, previously without electricity or suffering from power shortages, were connected. Tibet also planned to build 758 hydropower stations in the 2010s. [Source: Xinhua News Agency October 4, 2008]
Around 90,000 rural people got access to electricity in Tibet in 2009. Xinhua reported: The regional government plans to invest 2.5 billion yuan (367.6 million U.S. dollars) to help 510,000 rural people gain access to electricity during the 2008-2011 period, said Gao Yingyun, vice general manager of the Tibet Electric Power Co. Ltd.. To date, local authorities have invested 1.7 billion yuan and provided power to 280,000 farmers and herdsmen, Gao said. But there are still 800,000 people in the countryside have difficulties in gaining access to electricity," he said. "We will take further measures to expand power grid," he added. [Source: Xinhua, December 20, 2009]
Tackling Power Shortages in Tibet
Tibet had long experienced power shortages. It Tibet mainly relies on hydroelectric power, which is easier to produce in certain seasons than others. Large power shortages often arise in the winter when water becomes too scarce to meet the demand for electricity. According to the State Electricity Regulatory Commission, Tibet consumed 2 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity in 2010, 15 percent more than it had in the previous year. Even so, only the middle region of Tibet had power shortage. Forecasts in 2010 said Tibet lacked about 30 percent of the 1.1 billion kWh of electricity it needed, said Liu Xiaoming, general manager of Tibet Electric Power Co Ltd. [Source: China Daily, May 17, 2011]
The Chinese government promised that power shortages would end once the Qinghai-Tibet Power Grid Interconnection Project was finished in 2011. Before that, Tibet's grid was not linked to any other grids. During the dry season, the region lacked power because about 80 percent of its power supply came from hydro power stations, while in flood season, there was too much power.
According to the China Daily. Tibet has become more and more prosperous in recent years, as the amount of power it uses has shown annual double-digit percentage increases. The central government has placed a priority on ensuring the region is well-supplied with power, said Yu. "Even though the government started several hydropower projects during the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-2010) in the region, most of them have yet to be put into operation," he said. Yu said the new power grid can transmit 600,000 megawatts (mW), and modifications can be made to the grid to increase that amount to 1.2 million mW if the demand for power rises high enough.
Qinghai-Tibet Power Connection
Qinghai-Tibet Power Grid Interconnection Project plays a big part in supplying Tibet with power. During times of surplus power in Tibet during the flood season The Qinghai-Tibet grid connection transmits power to Qinghai or other parts of China. During the dry season power from Qinghai and elsewhere is transmitted to Tibet.
The China Daily reported at that time: The project's highest transmission tower reaches 5,300 meters above sea level in the Tangula Mountains, marking "a breakthrough for China's grid construction in high altitudes and in the fragile environment of the plateau", a Chinese official said. The project, into which 16.2 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) has been invested, stretches from Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, to Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region. It contains 750 kilometers (kms) of alternating-current transmission lines, running from Xining to Golmud, and 1,038 kms of direct-current line, running from Golmud to Lhasa.
Zhang Qingli, Party chief of Tibet, said the project is a priority for the State Grid Corp of China and will bring power and social stability over the long run and contribute to the prosperity of the region. "Many factories have to halt production from November to May every year here because of power shortages," said Lei Hong, a senior official on the project. "When the grid starts to be used for transmitting electricity, factories will be able to run throughout the whole year. He also said the company is planning to start another power-grid project, this one running from Hami in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to Golmud. Once that project is finished, the two new grids in western China will help to ensure the region can draw enough power to support the development of its economy.
Building the Qinghai-Tibet Grid Connection
Qinghai-Tibet Grid Connection was constructed in three phases: 1) In the first phase, a 750 KV transmission line was strung from Xining City, capital of Qinghai, to Golmud City in the center of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau; 2) Next, a 400 KV transmission line from Golmud to Lhasa was hung; 3) Third, a 220 KV grid facilities within Tibet was built. About 900 kilometers of the line was built on land above least 4,000 meters above sea level, making it the longest power transmission line ever constructed at such high altitudes. [Source: Xinhua, September 16, 2010]
More than 20,000 workers worked on the project at its peak. The project allocated 300 million yuan for medical care and environmental protection. First aid stations were built every 25 to 30 kilometers and clinics were set up every 100 kilometers along the line. Workers were trained in bases in Golmud and Lhasa to become accustomed to the high-altitude environment before going to the work sites.
Xinhua reported: One challenge for those involved in the project was to avoid affecting Qinghai-Tibet plateau's fragile ecology. "Whenever there is a conflict between construction and ecology, we will make way for environmental protection," said Yu Xinqiang, head of the construction headquarters. The soil, along with the plants in it, will be taken away and preserved before a transmission tower is constructed. Then the soil and plants will be returned to its original site, according to the construction plan. Workers are strictly prohibited from hunting or disturbing animals on the plateau. Also, transmission towers should be located away from animal habitats, according to the plan.
A section of 550 kilometers of the transmission line will be built on frozen soil that could become unstable due to temperature changes. "Construction on frozen soil is difficult, but we have developed some technologies to ensure the project progresses as planned," said Ding Yansheng, head of the construction headquarters' technology department. Experts note that with the experience of constructing the Qinghai-Tibet railway line, the world's highest and longest railway on a plateau, most of the project's challenges have previously learned solutions.
Hydropower in Tibet
Rivers crisscross the TAR’s 1.2-million-square-kilometer area, offering enormous potential waterpower. Tibet produces approximately 200 million kilowatts of natural hydroenergy annually, about 30 percent of the nation's total. It has 354.8 billion cubic meters in surface water resources, 13.5 percent of the nation's total, and 330 billion cubic meters in glacial water resources. The southeast of the autonomous region has a hydroenergy capacity that contains about 70 percent of the region's surface waters. The Yarlung Zangbo River mainstream has a natural hydroenergy capacity of 80 million kilowatts, which rises to 90 million kilowatts with the inclusion of its five tributaries of the Doxung Zangbo, Nyang Qu,Lhasa,Niya, and Parlung Zangbo rivers. [Source: chinaculture.org]
Tibet has about 56.59 million kilowatts in exploitable hydroenergy resources, 15 percent of the nation's total. Of particular importance is the Yarlung Zangbo River, with more than 47.37 million kilowatts in potential exploitable energy. Investigations have found more than 10 sites and sections of the river suitable for the construction of hydropower stations.
In the area between Paidi in Mainling County and Lidong Bridge in Medog County of the Nyingchi Prefecture, the river makes a U-turn, dropping 2,190 meters over the course of a famous 200-kilometer gorge. A 36-kilometer channel cut through the rock would allow the river to flow directly from Paidi to Lidong Bridge, where a giant 40-million-kilowatt hydropower plant could be built.
Controversial Dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet
No less than 28 dams on the Yarling Tsampo-Brahmaputra river in Tibet are either planned, completed or under discussion by China, according to Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan scholar of environmental policy at the University of British Columbia. [Source: Jonathan Wattsm The Guardian, May 24, 2010]
Exploitation of the river is already under way. China recently announced plans to build five dams further upstream, including a 500MW hydroplant at Zangmu, which is under construction by the power utility Huaneng.
According to Tsering, the biggest of them will be a huge plant at the great bend — either at Metog, known as Motuo in Chinese, or at Daduqia. The former would involve the construction of a series of tunnels, pipes, reservoirs and turbines to exploit the spectacular 2,000-meter fall of the river as it curls down towards India.
Geothermal Energy in Tibet
Tibet has great geothermal potential. Lhasa already gets much its electricity from the Yangpachen Geothermal Plant in Damxung County, which exploits China's largest high-temperature steam geothermal field, and is also one of the largest geothermal fields in operation in the world today. The Yangbajain geothermal power station, the biggest of this kind in China, has generated 2.5 billion kilowatts of electricity since it opened in 1977.
Surveys have found that Tibet leads China in geothermal energy. More than 600 geothermal sites — including hotsprings, boiling springs, geysers, hot flow rivers, and exothermic ground surfaces, with an estimated heat discharge of 550,000 kilocalories per second (the heat equivalent being about 2.4 million tons of standard coal annually) — have been located in the Nujiang-Jinshajiang-Lancangjiang tectonic zone, the Yarlung Zangbo rift zone, and the Nagqu-Nyemo rift zone. [Source: chinaculture.org]
Solar Power in Tibet
Tibet has some strongest and most consistent sunlight in the world. It has the richest source of solar energy in China and receives about 3,000 hours of sunshine annually, on average, or about 6,000 to 8,000 megajoules per square meter. " Ma Shengjie, director of Tibet’s regional government's science and technology department, told the China Daily. Portable solar panels are widely used for heating water and cooking on the plateau. Tibet's regional government estimated solar power helped save at least 162,800 tons of coal equivalent in 2010.
Tibet began using solar energy in the 1980s. It became China’s leading solar power generation base after 10 more photovoltaic power plants were completed in 2011-2012. Xinhua reported: The new plants cost $308 million and a combined 100-megawatt capacity. A 10-megawatt solar photovoltaic generation plant was built in Yangbajing, a town 90 kilometers northwest of Lhasa, with a designed power generation capacity of 430 million kWh during its 25-year life span. [Source: Xinhua, May 10, 2011]
The China Daily reported from Lhasa in 2011: When Lhapa's hands are busy gripping the steering wheel and he is unable to turn his prayer wheel, solar energy kicks in and turns it for him. Powered by a 4-cm-long, 2-cm-wide solar battery, the 15-cm-high golden prayer wheel mounted on his dashboard steadily whirls and sends out prayers to Buddha. "They are very cheap, just 30 yuan ($4.4), and you can buy them from any booth on the street," said Lhapa. "You find solar power everywhere in Lhasa."[Source: China Daily, May 24, 2011]
“In a neighborhood in Lhasa's western suburbs, almost every courtyard home is equipped today with a solar-powered water heater. "When I was young, people did not shower very often because we did not have enough fuel to heat the water. Now, with solar-powered water heaters, I can shower every day," said Kelsang Namgyal, a man in his late 50s who grew up in a farming family. He said he has also installed a solar-powered stove in his courtyard home. "The stove is much more efficient than the old stove that was fueled by dried yak dung. It takes about 20 minutes to braise beef," he said. About 395,000 solar-powered stoves have been put into use by Tibetans, according to the government. At the home of Migmar — Kelsang Namgyal's neighbor — a solar-fueled heater has replaced the air-conditioner and electric heater.
As of 2011, the capacity of photovoltaic power plants in Tibet totaled 9 megawatts, accounting for 13 percent of the national volume. At that time, larger photovoltaic power plants, which convert solar power to direct current, were on the way. A photovoltaic power plant with a capacity of 10 mW has been under construction in Yang, which is about 90 kilometers from Lhasa, since March, thanks to an investment of 220 million yuan. Another one, with a capacity of 2 mW, will be built in western Tibet's Ngari prefecture this year, Ma said.
A solar photovoltaic power plant in Shigatse was built by Linuo Group of Shandong province. The total investment of the plant was $122 million. The first section of the plant was put to work in May 2011. The plant provides electricity for 100,000 families in Shigatse for a year, saving 7,600 tons of coal and reducing carbon emissions of 13,800 tons. [Source: Xinhua, April 1, 2011]
Solar Houses, Tents and Appliances in Tibet
The China Daily reported: At a village in Lhasa's Maizhokunggar county, Pasang has equipped himself with a solar generator to light his tent when he is herding cattle at his summer pastures. "The generator weighs about 5 kg. After charging it for a whole day, it will power two lamps for the whole night," he said. [Source: China Daily, May 24, 2011]
In the mountainous, high-altitude regions of northern and western Tibet, the government has widely promoted passive solar building designs. The windows, walls and floors of a structure are designed to collect, store and distribute solar energy with higher efficiency than ordinary solar structures. In a passive solar structure, the daytime temperature in the winter can be 10 C higher than it is outdoors, meeting the needs of a school building, Ma said.
A passive solar house is also cheaper to build than an active solar house, which needs mechanical or electrical devices to increase the efficiency of solar energy. The cost of updating a house with passive solar building designs is equal to 20 percent of the expense of building a house, Ma said. According to the government, Tibet had 400,000 square meters of passive solar housing in 2011.
Solar energy is widely used by Tibetan families: with nearly 400,000 solar stoves installed in Tibetan kitchens, 10,000 square meters of homes being heated by solar energy and 200,000 households relying on solar energy for lighting as of 2011. Chogyal in Zada County of Ngari Prefecture told Xinhua her family relied on solar energy for powering most of the household's appliances and electric facilities. "On top of it, we don't have to pay a cent for (solar generated) electricity." [Source: Xinhua, May 10, 2011]
Oil and Natural Gas in Tibet
State-owned energy companies have been prospecting for oil and natural gas the Qinghai-Tibet plateau region for decades. Oilfields, natural gas and oil sands have been found in the Qaidam basin in Qinghai and the northern Tibet Plateau. The Qaidam Basin in Qinghai Province has been exploited for oil and gas since the 1950s. New sources of petroleum continue to be discovered there. In the northern Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), exploration has located petroleum deposits in the Chang Tang, a vast undisturbed highland steppe wilderness..
Major petroleum and natural gas sites in the Qinghai-Tibetan area include: 1) Qigequan Oil Field (38 21 20 N, 90 39 29 E), where oil was discovered in 1958 and sent soon afterwards to China; 2) Xianshuiquan Oil Field (38 34 07 N, 91 04 43 E) in Qinghai; 3) Youshashan Oil Sands (38 08 13 N, 90 59 40 E), one of several oil sands exploration and development projects in Qinghai; 4) Gasikule Oil Field (38 07 31 N, 90 55 33 E), the most productive oil field in Qinghai, producing 1,000,000 tons of oil annually; 5) Youquanzi Oil Field (38 21 44 N, 91 27 02 E), the first oil field found in the Qaidam Basin (1955) in Qinghai. [Source: “Meltdown in Tibet,” short film that raises disturbing questions about the exploitation of resources in Tibet]
BP Amaco, and the Italian firm Agip are engaged in oil and gas projects in Tibetan areas. In 2001, Chinese scientists announced the discovery of 5 billion tons of oil and gas in the Changtan region in northwest Tibet. A gas pipeline is being built across Qinghai province by the Chinese company PetroChina, with help from BP Amaco.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2022