Journal Notes on Development of Electricity Infrastructure in Tibet

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-20 11:58
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 The harsh natural environment of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as the roof of the world, and the long oppression of the feudal serfdom system held Tibet in savage darkness when most places in the world were enjoying developed material civilization. When Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1951, there was no electricity supply anywhere in the region and people had to depend on pine torches and butter lamps for light.


 Electricity first came to Tibet in 1928. A young Tibetan man was sent by the 13th Dalai Lama to England to learn about electric power. When he returned in 1921, he suggested that the Kashak government of Tibet build a hydroelectric power plant in Duodi gully in the northern suburbs of Lhasa. The equipment used in the power plant, which was made in England, only had a capacity of 92 kW. It had been carried to Lhasa on the back of human porters and horses from India via Nepal. The history of electricity use in Tibet began here. But after 18 years of operation, the only hydropower plant in Tibet was no longer operating normally due to the age of the equipment and Tibet was once again totally without electricity supply.

 It was decided in March 1955 at the Seventh Plenary Session of the State Council to appropriate central government funds and send engineers and technicians to Tibet to repair Duodi Hydropower Plant in Lhasa and build a small thermal power plant in Xigaze. In July 1956, construction of an oil-fired 80kW thermal plant was completed in Xigaze and in October of the same year, the repair and upgrading of Duodi Hydropower Plant was completed, giving it a capacity of 660kW. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in the development of the power industry in Tibet. When Tibet Autonomous Region was founded in 1965, the total installed generating capacity in Tibet Autonomous Region reached 8,240kW, capable of generating 26 million kWh every year. There were now three 35kv power transmission lines with a total length of 45.55km and ten 6kv lines with a total length of 98.6km. But Tibet is sparsely populated, so the farmers and ranchers living in most places were still not lucky enough to have electricity, which was mainly limited to cities such as Lhasa and Xigaze.

  October 19, 2009, an electrician in Tibet inspecting and repairing power lines at an altitude of about 5,000m above sea level. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Pubu Zhaxi 

 The electric power industry in Tibet developed rapidly in the 1980s. China’s largest geothermal power plant, which had a generating capacity of 24,000kW (eight 3,000kW generating units) and used subterranean heat, was built at Yangbajian, 90km from Lhasa in the grasslands in northern Tibet. In addition, a 110kW transmission line was strung from Yangbajian to the western suburbs of Lhasa, which served as the main power source for Tibet for a long time.

 The central government decided to build Grade I hydropower stations at Mamlha and Aoka to promote economic and social development in Tibet. Both locations are more than 4,000 meters above sea level where the conditions are harsh, making construction very difficult. The capacities of these hydropower stations were small, but the cost of construction was extremely high. The two hydropower stations were completed in 2000, but after a number of cost overruns, and financing depended entirely on financial appropriations from the central government.

 At examining and approving the construction of Jinhe Power Plant in Qamdo Prefecture shortly after this, the central government agreed for the first time to let Tibet Power Company manage construction in the capacity of the legal person of the project and appropriated the full amount of 521 million yuan for its construction. The 60,000kW capacity Jinhe Power Plant was one of the largest such projects in Tibet at the time. The feasibility report for Jinhe Power Plant was approved in September 2001 and construction began in December of the same year. In April 2004, the first generating unit began to generate power and in August all four 15,000kW generating units went on line. The scheduled completion date for the project was met and costs were kept under control. This was a major power plant for Tibet completed during the Tenth Five-Year Plan period.

 To meet the growing need for electricity in Tibet, construction on the 100,000kW Zhikong Hydropower Plant was started in May 2003. The central government appropriated 1.07 billion yuan for the project, 80% of the total cost, and Tibet Power Company took out a loan of 267 million yuan for the remaining 20%. This marked the first time the central government did not finance the full amount for such a project. The economic and social development surged in Tibet following the opening of Qinghai-Tibet Railway on July 1, 2006. Electric power capacity grew by over 14% a year thanks to the start up of four generating units at Zhikong Hydropower Plant, easing the shortage of electricity.

  Ngari Prefecture is far from Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. It is located on a road between Tibet and Xinjiang and has a small population but it occupies an important strategic position. A solar photovoltaic power plant was built there first to supply the area with electricity. In July 2004, construction was begun on the Senge Khabab (Town of the Lion) Power Plant. The plant has a capacity of 6,000kW and required an investment of 426 million yuan, 71,000 yuan per kilowatt and eight times the cost of similar power plants in the interior. On September 1, 2006, it began generating power and was completed at the end of the year. Though the cost was high, it resolved the need for electricity in Ngari Prefecture, which had been a problem for a long time. Since that time, Ngari, which is located on a plateau, has been lit up at night.


 Construction was begun on Qinghai-Tibet Railway on June 29, 2001, attracting the attention of the world. As a member of the leading group for the construction of the railway, this author was responsible for arranging the power supply for the construction and operation of the railway. On June 3, 2001, this author traveled the entire length of Qinghai-Tibet Railway line starting from Golmud. At that time electricity from Qinghai power grid only reached as far as Golmud and Tibet grid only reached Nagqu. The nearly 1,000km between Golmud and Nagqu had no power supply. We decided after some discussion that Qinghai Electric Power Company should string a line from Golmud to Kunlun Mountain through to Tuotuo River, the source of the Yangtze River and that Tibet Autonomous Region should build a 539km of 110kv line from Nagqu to Amdo and four transformer stations with 40km of 35kv line with an appropriation of 372 million yuan. The power supply project for Qinghai-Tibet Railway begun in April of 2003 and was completed at the end of 2005. It gave strong support for the construction of Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

 Tibet has a vast area with little total installed generating capacity. In the 1990s when this author was directly in charge of the electric power industry in the former State Planning Commission, Lhasa, Shannan, Xigaze, Nyingchi and Qamdo were independent power supply areas that were not connected to each other. The only meagre power supply for Senge Khabab in Ngari Prefecture came from small diesel-powered generators. There were now more power plants in the area, so it became necessary to strengthen power grid construction. First, the three independent regional grids of Lhasa, Shannan (Tsedang) and Xigaze were combined to form the Central Tibet Power Grid. By 2005, the Central Tibet Power Grid had installed generating capacity of 237,300kW and the electric supply for Tibet was mainly concentrated in this area. Tibet is now divided into four regional grids for Central Tibet, Qamdo, Nyingchi and Ngari. Future plans call for connecting Nyingchi to the Central Tibet grid, but since Qamdo and Ngari are too far it is impossible to link all of Tibet to one large grid. 

 The farmers and herders of Tibet Autonomous Region are scattered over a vast area. As of the end of 2001, there were 460 townships and 5,254 villages without electricity. In 2002 we launched a project called the “project to bring light to the townships,” also known as the “light project,” to supply electricity to townships mainly through solar photovoltaic generation. As of 2005, total actual investment in Tibet reached 1,368 million yuan, which was used to build 322 photovoltaic power plants, bringing electricity to 318 townships previously without power, as well as 24 small hydropower stations with 73 more under construction, which will solve the electricity problem for 100 townships without power. Making my way up the 5,040m high Mila Mountain on July 6, 2007, this author could see the newly erected electric poles and the orderly rows of ceramic insulators that had become part of the local power grids bringing electricity to the local farmers and herders. A local Tibetan man told me the price of electricity there was 0.42 yuan per kWh. In a primary school in Maizhokunggar County of Lhasa there was a 6kW photovoltaic power plant built with the assistance of the former State Planning Commission. This plant supplies power for the school’s lighting, video equipment and television sets. From the square in front of the grand Potala Palace at dusk one could see that the grand palace was brightly lit up by multicolor lights. It was hard to believe that this was on the Tibetan Plateau. 

 Thanks to decades of development work, Tibet has developed the basic framework for a clean energy production and supply system mainly of using hydropower supplemented by other energy sources such as subterranean heat and solar energy. The system features both centralized power supply and local independent power supply. At the end of 2008, the total installed generating capacity of the region had reached 710,000kW and a total length of 1,683km of 110kW transmission lines and 2,055km of 35kW lines had been put in operation. This connected all the government seats of all the counties, townships and towns to power supply. Sixty percent of all administrative villages were connected to power supply, covering 73% of the population.


 In July 2009, the National Energy Administration of China organized a group to investigate and study energy resources composed of personnel from ten government departments to promote continued development of the ethnic minority regions. The group went to Tibet to carry out an on-site investigation of the current status of energy development and to analyze the growth in energy demand, study how to adjust the region’s plan for electric power projects accordingly and put forward suggestions for a number of tasks to speed up the pace of energy development in Tibet. Plans call for the whole region’s per capita household energy consumption, average per capita installed power generating capacity and total power consumption to reach the national average level by 2020. We have reason to believe that the future of Tibet, this bright pearl on the high plateau, will be even more lustrous and brilliant. 

 Looking back and reflecting on the history of electric power construction in Tibet, the following points become crystal-clear to me: One, the development of the electric power industry of Tibet has to be based on the needs of the people, with improvement of the living standard of the Tibetan people and the harmonious and steady development of this ethnic minority region as the most fundamental starting point and ending point. Development of the electricity infrastructure should satisfy the needs of the people for electricity in their lives, promote improvement of the living conditions of the people and lead demand to an appropriate degree. Two, the electricity infrastructure should be suitable for the special plateau environment of Tibet and every effort should be made to utilize the native energy resources of Tibet by actively working to develop and utilize clean energy resources such as water energy, wind energy, solar energy and subterranean heat in a way that balances resource, environmental and economic concerns. Three, development of the electricity infrastructure in Tibet should not just take into consideration economic significance; even more important is the political significance. Tibet is located in an important area of China where ethnic minorities live in compact communities on cold plateau. The small population of the region is distributed over a vast area. The cost for developing electric power is high, but there is great political significance in developing this minority region to improve the living conditions of the people of Tibet. The state must continue to be the main financing agent for the development of the electricity infrastructure of Tibet. We must give full consideration to the need for energy development in Tibet in the annual budget of the central government and appropriately strengthen state financial support.

(From Qiushi in Chinese No. 21, 2009)

Note: Author: Deputy Director of the National Development and Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China and Director of the National Energy Administration of the People’s Republic of China

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