China’s worst heatwave on record cripples power supply. How he reacts will affect us all

The impact was felt everywhere, from the neighboring megalopolis of Chongqing and eastern provinces along the Yangtze River to the financial hub of Shanghai – where the iconic skyline darkened this week to save energy .

In a country that prides itself on economic growth and stability, the severe electricity shortage has come as a shock to residents who over the past decades have grown accustomed to improved living conditions and infrastructure .

For many, the prolonged blackouts bring back memories of a distant past – a bygone era before China’s economic boom ushered in its glitzy metropolises and lifted millions out of poverty.

And now climate change threatens to disrupt that sense of security and economic growth.

The current heat wave is the worst China has seen since records began more than 60 years ago. It stretched for 70 days, sweeping across large swaths of the country and breaking temperature records at hundreds of weather stations.

The sheer size of China’s economy and population means that any major disruption to its power supply can cause massive loss and suffering.

“These so-called extreme weather events will have more impact on our lives and our electricity supply,” said Li Shuo, climate adviser at Greenpeace in Beijing. “And maybe we all need to reconsider whether these extreme events will become the new normal.”

Experts say the Sichuan energy crisis is an example that China’s energy system is far less robust than it needs to be to deal with the growing challenges of climate change.

Some believe the industry is moving in the right direction towards reform, while others fear it is turning to building more coal-fired power stations to secure energy supplies – and risks undermining promises China to achieve carbon peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

How did the power crisis come about?

Located along the upper course of the Yangtze, China’s longest and largest river, Sichuan is famous for its rich water resources and relies mainly on hydroelectricity.

Amid scorching temperatures and prolonged drought, Sichuan’s reservoirs are drying up, crippling hydroelectric power plants that account for nearly 80 percent of the province’s power generation capacity.

This month, Sichuan saw its hydroelectric capacity drop by 50%, according to the public network. Meanwhile, the relentless heat wave has pushed demand for electricity to unprecedented levels, as residents and businesses blast their air conditioning to stay cool.
An aerial view of the Baihetan hydroelectric power station which straddles Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in southwest China.

“China’s electricity demand has been incredibly stable in the past, as much of it came from industry, not households or services. Now that air conditioning is becoming more common, demand is increasing,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, Principal Analyst. at the Center for Energy and Clean Air Research in Helsinki, Finland (CREA).

“At the same time, the rains are becoming more erratic. Heavy rains and dry spells make hydropower much less reliable as a source of available capacity during these peaks.”

To make matters worse, Sichuan has traditionally been a huge exporter of electricity during the rainy season, sending about a third of its hydropower output to China’s eastern provinces, according to China energy analyst David Fishman. at the consulting firm The Lantau Group.

Despite its crippled power generation capacity, Sichuan still has to honor its export contracts with other provinces, which Fishman said could “be very difficult to get out of.”

“But even if they could, the Sichuan generation facilities were built to export power to the east coast,” he said. “They don’t really have much connectivity with the rest of the Sichuan grid. They were never intended to meet Sichuan’s power consumption needs.”

“Quench your thirst with poison”

To ease the energy crisis, Sichuan is turning on its coal-fired power plants, raising concerns among environmentalists about the potential increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Sichuan Guang’an Power Generation, the region’s largest coal-fired power plant, has operated at full capacity for 21 consecutive days. Its power generation for August is expected to jump 313% from a year earlier, the company said.

The province is also extracting more coal. Sichuan Coal Industry Group, its largest coal producer, has more than doubled its thermal coal production since mid-August. And last week, Sichuan opened its first national coal reserve.

Nationwide, daily coal consumption in power plants increased by 15% in the first two weeks of August compared to the same period last year, according to the National Development and Reform Commission. .

China returns to coal as record heatwave causes power shortages

Last week, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng said the government would step up support for coal-fired power plants to ensure a stable electricity supply.

While the jump in coal consumption is likely a temporary fix, Li, the Greenpeace adviser, feared the hydropower crisis could be used by coal interest groups to push for more coal-fired power plants. .

“It is possible that power shortages caused by future extreme weather events will become a new motivation for China to approve more (coal-fired power) projects,” he said.

Last year, after a coal shortage caused a series of power outages across China, the government began to signal renewed interest in “energy security”. In the final quarter of the year, new coal capacity approved increased, particularly at state-owned companies, Greenpeace said in a report released last month.

In the first quarter of this year, provincial governments approved plans to add a total of 8.63 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants, nearly half the amount seen in 2021, according to the report.

“Energy security has become something of a code word for coal, rather than a reliable supply of energy,” the report says.

Yu Aiqun, China researcher at the Global Energy Monitor, likened reliance on coal – the main cause of global warming – for energy security to “quenching a thirst with poison”.

“China is obsessed with coal power – there is a very strong sense of dependency. Whenever an energy problem arises, they always try to seek an answer from coal power… contrary to its climate goals,” she said.

‘Big challenge’

China’s response to its energy crisis will have an impact on the rest of the world. The country of 1.4 billion people is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, accounting for 27% of global emissions.

But some analysts say increasing coal capacity is only part of China’s response to much-needed energy reform.

Following last year’s power shortages, the Chinese government has taken significant steps to increase price flexibility and clean energy profitability, CREA’s Myllyvirta said.

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“The big challenge with the Chinese system is that the network is operated very rigidly,” he said. “Different provinces do not share their capacity and do not use their capacity optimally to balance the loads in the region.”

Therefore, the need to build more thermal power plants can be greatly reduced if China’s power grid can be managed more efficiently and flexibly, Myllyvirta said.

Along with the new coal-fired power plant, China is also stepping up renewable energy construction – its installed solar and wind power capacity now accounts for 35-40% of the global total.

Fishman, the energy consultant, said new coal-fired power plants won’t necessarily be used; instead, they were built as a backup for the booming renewable energy sector – in case it runs into trouble, like the ongoing drought in Sichuan.

“Capacity doesn’t equal production. Existing capacity creates a lot of options and flexibility for all these other (renewable power sources) that they’re building.” he said. “For now, I see the coal capacity additions, for the most part, to be able to support wind and solar.”

Fishman said China’s power system planners are aware of the challenges they face and that the industry as a whole is moving “in the right direction.”

The record heat wave and power shortage in Sichuan underscore the need for grid system reform, he said. “Because without them it would be an event that could happen every five or 10 years, and it would be crippling every five or 10 years – or maybe even more frequently,” he said.

Rosemary C. Kearney