The Thirsty Dragon: China’s Scorching Heat and Hydropower Missteps Test Nation’s Power Grid

Via the Wall Street Journal, an article on how the drought and Chinese officials’ underestimating the recent heat wave led to ‘lights out’ on Shanghai’s Bund:

China’s drought this month closed factories, forced commuters to ride in the dark and turned out the lights on the historic Bund walkway in central Shanghai.

The energy shortage caused by the drought was exacerbated by decisions made by local officials and grid executives in Sichuan, one of the hardest-hit provinces, according to documents seen by The Wall Street Journal. In July, the province ran down its water reservoirs and boosted hydropower exports to other regions to levels that were 15% higher than the same time a year ago. The officials were expecting the reservoirs to be replenished in August, usually a rainy season in the region.

The energy shortages point to the fragility of China’s energy system and its vulnerability to climate change-driven extreme weather events, as the nation’s increasingly affluent population ramps up demand for air-conditioning to cope with ever-hotter temperatures.

Sichuan normally produces such an abundance of hydropower that it is able to export electricity to neighboring provinces, but its heavy reliance on water-generated energy also means it will be severely affected by droughts. The province’s backup coal plants, even running at full capacity, couldn’t produce enough power to make up for the shortages.

The internal reports from provincial energy administrators, the power trading exchange and two units of electricity distributor State Grid Corp. that were seen by the Journal reveal how officials underestimated the severity of the drought despite warning signals in July. In August, Sichuan experienced a power crunch caused by what one of the reports dubbed “The Four Superlatives”—record high temperatures and electricity demand compounded by all-time lows of rainfall and water flowing into the reservoirs and hydropower stations.

The resulting energy shortfall closed factories in Sichuan and the neighboring megacity of Chongqing, rippling out along the supply chain and more than 1,000 miles to the east to briefly snuff out the lights along the Bund. Toyota Motor Corp. and suppliers to Apple Inc. were among global companies to be hit.

With rain forecast, emergency power-saving measures might ease in the coming days, but the longer term effects will likely persist for months.

Residential electricity use in Sichuan jumped 45% in July from a year earlier, as people reached for their air conditioners, according to the provincial energy administration.

Instead of trying to conserve as much water and energy as possible to provide backup should conditions worsen in August, Sichuan ran down water reserves to maintain hydropower production at levels only 4% lower than a year earlier, the documents showed. By mid-August, documents show, water reservoir levels in western Sichuan were less than 4% above the minimum usable level.

To be sure, it is common practice to discharge water during the region’s traditional wet season, and there had been cause for optimism. China’s meteorological bureau forecast temperatures would remain above average for August, but it also predicted rainfall in north and northwest Sichuan would be up to 20% higher than the historical average, the provincial grid operator said in one document.

Sichuan, which had multiple contracts with other provinces to dispatch electricity to them, sent 24 billion kilowatt-hours to other regions in July. By comparison, Shanghai’s average monthly consumption last year was about 15 billion kilowatt-hours.

At the same time, Sichuan—which was already dealing with heat- and drought-induced electricity-supply tightness—turned to neighboring Shaanxi province for an emergency supply, one of the documents said. But as high temperatures rolled over central and eastern China, the help Sichuan could receive from elsewhere dwindled.

And the situation worsened as China’s historic heat wave and drought persisted through August. Sichuan’s officials curtailed power supply to industry on Aug. 15 for six days, although some experts saw this as overly optimistic. Things didn’t improve, and on Aug. 20 the power cuts were extended.

Even as passengers in the province’s capital of Chengdu were forced to ride in dark subway wagons to conserve energy, Sichuan was still scheduled to dispatch 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours to 14 other provinces, cities and regions this month, the reports show. Meanwhile, Sichuan’s electricity deficit was 6 billion kilowatt-hours, one document said.

Officials from the agencies concerned didn’t respond to requests for comment or confirm the veracity of the documents. Sichuan’s provincial meteorology bureau declined to accept questions about the issue, and the phone at the China Meteorological Administration rang unanswered on Thursday.

Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng said last week that the government would ensure the power and energy supplies needed to support the country’s economy and help prevent outages. On Saturday, Beijing called on its provinces to speed up the approval of new power-generation capacity, with backup options that include more coal-fired and nuclear plants.

Power shortages are adding to the economic challenges as the Chinese Communist Party prepares for a twice-a-decade gathering of top leaders, at which President Xi Jinping is expected to break with recent practice and secure a third term. Growth has been slowed by the effects of stringent Covid-19 control measures that have hit consumer demandA slumping property market has added to financial risks.

Chinese brokerage Tianfeng Securities estimated that Sichuan’s power outages alone will dent China’s national industrial output by up to almost 0.6%.

Meanwhile, Toyota said Thursday that a factory it operates with state-owned car maker FAW Group Co. in Chengdu had resumed operations by relying on in-house generators. The company had been forced to suspend operations last week.

Sichuan officials have worried for years that exporting so much power could hurt the province. In 2020, provincial officials lobbied the central government to let them keep more of the electricity generated at the Baihetan Dam project, which straddles the border between Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan province, official records show.

Beijing rejected the request in favor of provinces in eastern China that had been struggling to generate enough energy for themselves.

With extreme weather events becoming more frequent globally because of climate change, China’s planners must factor this into the energy system, experts say.

“China must now design power systems around something like this happening every 10 to 15 years and increase resilience,” David Fishman, a Shanghai-based senior manager for the Lantau Group energy consulting firm, wrote in a report this week.

This entry was posted on Saturday, August 27th, 2022 at 4:57 am and is filed under China, Yangtze River.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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