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On China's Electricity Grid, East Needs West—for Coal

China taps the west’s coal reserves to light up its coast
Trucks line up at the Buya Coal Mine in the Xinjiang region
Trucks line up at the Buya Coal Mine in the Xinjiang regionPhotograph by Liu Xin/Color China Photo/AP Photo

Geography has presented obstacles to generations of Chinese planners. From the ancient Grand Canal to the ongoing South-to-North Water Transfer Project, vast waterways have been rerouted. The latest challenge: redirecting energy generated in some of China’s remotest provinces to power-hungry cities in the east.

Like the U.S., China has a dense network of large eastern cities, a less urbanized interior, and a western region rich in natural resources. With freight railroads and river barges badly overloaded (coal transport glitches have led to rolling brownouts around Shanghai), the central government has been building high-voltage transmission networks along three primary corridors, known as the West-East Electricity Transfer Project. It’s a vast undertaking: By 2020, the total electricity capacity of these corridors is projected to equal 60 Hoover Dams. It also poses potential threats to the environment and the livelihoods of local inhabitants.