Southwest China’s Yunnan province is evolving into one of the world’s largest hydro-power-producing regions. It already rivals the world’s largest hydro-producing nations. However, five of Yunnan’s six basins are international and therefore its hydropower development is of great academic and geopolitical interest. While the implementation of large projects on Yunnan’s three large rivers (Jinsha, Mekong and Nu) is relatively well studied, hydropower development outside these three main streams is hardly known. Here, we identified 128 large hydropower projects (≥50 MW) having a capacity of 16.5 GW, along with another 16.4 GW of other types of power generation, neither of which has been discussed in the academic literature yet. The paper utilizes a powershed approach to study the rapid hydropower development underway in Yunnan, both in its implication and challenges (at basin and administrative level) as well as in its trade-offs within the broader electricity context. Yunnan’s power generation and consumption patterns are characterized by diverging interests of local/provincial usage and export utilization. Within the province, the largest (hydro-) power users are energy/electricity intensive industries, which themselves have strong impacts on land use changes. Yunnan is also evolving as a major power exporter, already in 2013 exporting about one-third of its generated electricity mainly to Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta. We see a need for a critical revision of those existing generation and consumption paradigms, which includes a rethinking of major development modes, both in terms of future hydropower generation and utilization projects as well as export obligations.
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