Why COVID is cutting into China’s power rations
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A woman buys groceries from a mini market using a light bulb powered by a generator during a blackout in Shenyang, China, on Wednesday.
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A man uses his smartphone flashlight to light up his bowl of noodles as he eats his breakfast at a restaurant during a blackout in Shenyang, in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, Wednesday. People ate breakfast by flashlight and shopkeepers used portable generators as power cuts imposed to meet official conservation goals disrupted manufacturing and daily life.
«Now we have a situation where in some provinces of up to 50% of coal-fired power plants are pretending to be out of order or have run so low on coal that they can’t generate,» he says. About 57% of China’s power comes from burning coal.
Traffic jams and factories shut
In China’s north, sudden power outages have led to flickering traffic lights and immense car jams. Some cities have said they are shutting off elevators to conserve energy. To fight off the autumn chill, some residents are burning coal or gas indoors; 23 people were rushed to the hospital in northern Jilin city with carbon monoxide poisoning after doing so without proper ventilation.
To the south, factories have been cut off from electricity for more than a week. The lucky ones are rationed three to seven days of power at a time.
Energy intensive sectors like textiles and plastics face the strictest power rationing, a measure meant to ameliorate both the current shortages but also work toward long-term emissions reduction goals. China’s latest five-year economic plan targets a 13.5% reduction in the amount of energy used to produce each unit of gross domestic product by 2025.
Ge Caofei, a manager at a textile dying factory in southern Zhejiang province, say the local government is rationing power by cutting off his electricity three out of every 10 days. He says he even looked into buying a diesel generator, but his factory is just too big to be powered by one.
«Customers need to plan in advance when placing orders, because our lights are on for seven days, then off for three,» he says. «This policy is unavoidable because every [textile] factory around us is under the same cap.»
Rationing delays supply chains
The power rationing has created long delays in global supply chains that are reliant on Chinese factories.
Viola Zhou, a sales director at Zhejiang cotton textile printing firm Baili Heng, says her company used to fill orders in 15 days. Now the wait time is about 30 to 40 days.
«There is no way around these rules. Let’s say you buy a generator; regulators can easily check your gas or water meter to see how many resources you are consuming,» Zhou says by phone from Shaoxing, a city known for its textile industry. «We can only follow in the steps of the government here.»
China is reforming its energy grid so power plants have more flexibility in how much they can charge. Some of those higher power costs will be passed from factories to global consumers. Long term, the power rationing highlights how urgently needed renewable energy and natural gas projects are.
The national energy policy commission said this week it was working to stabilize medium- and long-term coal contracts between mines and power plants and will reduce the amount of coal that power plants must keep on hand, in a bid to ease the financial pressure on the sector.
More immediate problems are on hand, with winter approaching. About 80% of heating in China is coal-fired. Coaxing power plants to operate in the red could be a challenge.
- China coal
- electricity demand
- Chinese economy