More coal required as drought threatens Chinas renewable energy system

More than 70 days of heatwaves and droughts have spread across half of China, threatening the country’s hydropower energy, damaging the production output, and crippling the economy. With forecasts that these conditions will continue well into September, China has turned to coal to keep the nation afloat.

The recent events mark the worst heatwave since record-keeping began in 1961, including a top of 43-degrees Celsius in Sichuan and 45-degrees in Beibei. These extreme heatwaves have caused widespread droughts along many rivers across China, including the Yangtze – the third longest in the world.

This river runs through the entire country, originating in Tibet and finishing in the East China Sea, providing drinking water for 400 million Chinese people, aswell as a key source of the economy, being used for transportation and food services.

However, currently, the water flow on the Yangtze’s main trunk is more than 50% lower than the average of the past five years, with shipping routes closing in the middle and lower sections of the river, the SCMP reported.

And the record-breaking droughts of the Yangtze, along with other rivers, are having devastating impacts on the energy supply of the country, impacting the production output across many industries.

Currently, hydropower accounts for roughly 15% of the China’s total electric power capacity, with various cities using more of the clean energy source than others.

One city that relies heavily on this clean energy source is Sichuan, which gets more than 80% of its energy from hydropower.

And as such, the recent droughts have had devastating impacts on the city.

In August, the Sichuan government announced that it was at the highest warning level of, “particularly severe,” with water flows into hydropower reservoirs dropping by 50% since the start of the month.

As a result, the province was forced to suspend or limit power supply to thousands of homes and factories, as well as ration public electricity usage. Toyota, Foxconn, and CATL were among the companies that temporarily closed down. However, the factories have since re-opened as the local order had expired.

Sichuan accounts for nearly 15% of China’s polysilicon production, so these outages will further tighten the market, according to Morgan Stanley’s analyst Simon Lee. Dennis Ip, equity research analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets, also mentioned that the outages will reduce the supply of lithium, pushing up its the price.

The heat-induced power shortages forced also the city of Chongqing to shorten shopping mall hours and suspend the operations of many major factories, including Honda, Ford Motor, and Isuzu.

Megacities are also feeling the pinch.

Shanghai has shut off lights and escalators, and cut back on air conditioning usage. Tesla has alerted stakeholders of disruptions to the supply chain for its Shanghai Plant, whilst Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., a global leader in the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries, temporarily shut down their factory.

Overall, these extreme droughts resulting in electricity cuts to factories and homes have affected more than 80 million people.

However, these recent events have also revealed the instability of hydropower energy.

China has earmarked hydropower as an essential pillar of China’s ambitions to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 and are currently world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity.

However, hydropower energy – like solar and wind – relies on perfect weather and precipitation trends, making it unreliable when weather conditions are not as favourable.

And as seen in China, relying too heavily on these new forms of clean energy has the potential to have devastating impacts on power generation.

Overall, China must “find more sophisticated solutions to achieve low-carbon transition,” Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, states.

However, in the meantime, coal remains an adequate solution to China’s energy woes.

In July, China Customs data revealed that China had imported 6.2 million tons of coal in July, an increase of 62% year on year.

In the first two weeks of August, power plants throughout China have used 8.16 million metric tons of coal, up 15% from a year ago, according to data reported by the state-affiliated Global Times.

Sichuan Coal Industry Group, the province’s largest coal miner in the city most affected by the droughts, has more than doubled its thermal coal production to nearly 15,000 tonnes per day since mid-August, according to government-owned Sichuan Daily.

Recently, the Chinese vice-premier Han Zheng said Beijing would provide more support for coal power generation at this “critical moment” so that “there is no accident in power supply.”

As the world slowly shifts toward renewable, clean energy, without systems in place to guarantee that these forms of energy are stable throughout any natural weather conditions, fossil fuels are a still a necessity to power a country.

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