The impact has been felt everywhere, from the neighboring metropolis of Chongqing and the eastern provinces along the Yangtze River to the financial hub of Shanghai, where the iconic skyline darkened this week in an effort to save energy.
In a country that prides itself on its economic growth and stability, the acute shortage of electricity has come as a shock to residents who have grown accustomed to improved living conditions and infrastructure over the past decades.
For many, prolonged power outages evoke memories of a distant past—a bygone era before China’s economic rise opened up its glitzy metropolises and lifted millions out of poverty.
And now climate change threatens to destroy that sense of security and economic growth.
The ongoing heatwave is the worst China has seen since records began over 60 years ago. It stretched for 70 days, covering large areas 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 power outage could result in massive loss and suffering.
“These so-called extreme weather events will have a greater impact on our lives and electricity supply,” said Li Shuo, climate adviser at Greenpeace in Beijing. “And perhaps we all need to reconsider whether these extreme events will become the new normal.”
Experts say the Sichuan energy crisis is an example of China’s energy system being much less reliable than it needs to be to withstand the growing challenges posed by climate change.
Some believe the industry is heading in the right direction towards reforms, while others fear it will turn to building more coal-fired power plants to secure energy supply – and risk undermining China’s pledges to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 .
How did the energy crisis happen?
Situated on the headwaters of the Yangtze, China’s longest and largest river, Sichuan is famous for its abundant water resources and is largely dependent on hydropower.
Amid scorching temperatures and prolonged drought, reservoirs across Sichuan province are drying up, shutting down hydroelectric power plants, which account for nearly 80% of the province’s generating capacity.
“Demand for electricity in China has been incredibly low in the past because most of it came from industry rather than households or services. Now that air conditioning is becoming more commonplace, the demand is getting higher,” said Lauri Müllivirta, lead analyst. at the Center for Energy and Clean Air Research in Helsinki, Finland (CREA).
“At the same time, the rains are becoming more and more erratic. Heavy rains and periods of drought make hydropower much less reliable as a source of available capacity during these peak periods.”
To make matters worse, Sichuan has traditionally been a major monsoon electricity exporter, sending about a third of its hydroelectric power to provinces in east China, according to David Fishman, a Chinese energy analyst at The Lantau Group, a consultancy.
Despite limited power generation capacity, Sichuan still has to honor its export contracts with other provinces, which Fishman said “will be very difficult to get out of.”
“But even if they could, the generation facilities in Sichuan were built to export electricity to the east coast,” he said. “They don’t really have a good connection to the rest of the Sichuan network. They were never intended to meet Sichuan’s energy needs.”
“Quenching Thirst with Poison”
To alleviate the energy crisis, Sichuan is starting up its coal-fired power plants, raising concerns among environmentalists about a potential increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
The province also produces more coal. Sichuan Coal Industry Group, the world’s largest coal mining company, has more than doubled its thermal coal production since mid-August. And last week, Sichuan opened its first national coal reserve.
According to the National Development and Reform Commission, daily coal consumption at power plants in the country rose by 15% in the first two weeks of August compared to the same period last year.
Last week, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng said the government would step up support for coal-fired power plants to ensure a stable power supply.
While a jump in coal consumption is likely a temporary fix, Lee, a Greenpeace adviser, fears the hydropower crisis could be used by coal interest groups to lobby for more coal-fired power plants.
“There is a possibility that power shortages caused by future extreme weather events could be a new motivation for China to approve more projects (coal power),” he said.
In the first quarter of this year, provincial governments approved plans for a total of 8.63 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants, almost half the total of 2021, according to the report.
“Energy security has become sort of a code word for coal rather than a reliable energy supply,” the report says.
Yu Aikun, a China researcher at the Global Energy Monitor, likened turning to coal – the main cause of global warming – for energy security to “quenching one’s thirst with poison.”
“China is obsessed with coal energy – there is a very strong sense of dependence. Whenever there is an energy problem, he is always trying to find an answer to coal power… It goes in the opposite direction from his climate goals,” she said.
But some analysts say the increase in coal capacity is only part of China’s response to much-needed energy reform.
After a power shortage last year, the Chinese government has taken important steps to improve pricing flexibility and the profitability of clean energy, CREA’s Müllivirta said.
“The big problem in China’s system is that the power grid is working very hard,” he said. “Different provinces are not dividing their capacity and using it in an optimal way to balance the load in the region.”
Thus, the need to build more thermal power plants could be greatly reduced if China’s electricity grid could be managed more efficiently and flexibly, Mylluvirta said.
Fishman, an energy consultant, said the new coal-fired plants would not necessarily be used; instead, they were built as a back-up for the fast-growing renewable energy sector – in case it runs into problems, such as the ongoing drought in Sichuan province.
“Power is not equal to generation. The available capacity creates a lot of opportunity and flexibility for all these other (renewables) that they are building.” he said. “At the moment, I see that the increase in coal capacity, for the most part, is aimed at supporting 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.”
Record heat and power shortages in Sichuan province underline the need to reform the power grid, he said. “Because without them, this would be an event that could happen every five or ten years, and it would cause damage every five or ten years, maybe even more often,” he said.