China Facing Winter Blackouts

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By Paul Homewood

There’s an interesting story emerging from China:

From the Malaysian news outlet, FMT:

Speculation online is that the power shortages may be self-inflicted as a result of China’s embargo of Australian coal. (AP pic)


BEIJING: Tens of millions across China are facing power shortages in below-freezing winter temperatures, as three provinces impose curbs on electricity use due to surging demand and a squeezed coal supply.

Residents, factories and businesses in Hunan, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces have been ordered to ration electricity with some areas citing a shortfall in coal supplies, according to local media reports and government notices.

China’s rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic has been driven by energy intensive industries such as construction, heaping pressure on the power grid and coal supplies, said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Earlier this month, Hunan authorities ordered all billboards and outdoor lighting on buildings to power off for long periods each day and a temperature cap on indoor heating at entertainment venues.

Hunan faces a shortfall of 3-4 million kilowatts of electricity this winter, local officials admitted last week, as demand soars due to unusually cold weather that will hit as low as -10°C.

Office workers in provincial capital Changsha complained on social media about being forced to climb dozens of flights of stairs and freezing indoor temperatures as a result of frequent power outages.

“My office heating has already been stopped, and there were blackouts on Dec 1, 3 and 5. Temperatures will drop to -8°C around New Year’s Day, will I freeze to death in Hunan?” one Weibo user wrote last week.

Meanwhile in Zhejiang province, factories in the manufacturing hub of Yiwu have been told to stop operations and streetlights have been turned off at night as part of an emissions-saving drive by the local government, according to media reports and photos circulated on Weibo.

Supply ‘largely stable’

China’s top economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), on Monday sought to reassure the public by saying the electricity supply is “largely stable”, and pledged to increase generation capacity and coal procurement.

The power crisis points to the challenges fast-growing China faces in balancing the needs of its vast population with strict carbon emissions targets promised by its leadership.

China — by far the world’s biggest consumer of coal — is pivoting to renewable energy sources to meet a pledge to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

Speculation has swirled online that the power shortages may be self-inflicted as a result of China’s embargo of Australian coal, which has left ships stranded at ports, unable to offload large quantities of coal.

However, Australian coal only made up about 3% of last year’s total coal imports of 265 million tonnes, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

“The Aussie ban only had little impact on China’s thermal coal supply,” said Yan Qin, carbon analyst at financial data service Refinitiv.

“But China-Australia tensions have caused significant worries in the commodities markets, driving up domestic coal prices.”

I personally doubt if the Australian ban has made much difference. I suspect that China faces these sort of problems every winter.

But there is a back story to this. Not only is demand exacerbated in the extremely cold winter months in China, but hydro power is also at its lowest, peaking in summer and autumn.

This is the main reason why power shortages occur. Obviously the same applies to solar power, which is at its lowest in winter, although this is still so tiny as to be irrelevant.


Perverse though it may appear, generation is at its lowest in Q1, when demand is at a high. This is because thermal generation is pretty much running at full blast all year, except for Q2 which is probably due to planned maintenance. Meanwhile wind power varies little, and of course nuclear also runs at full capacity. (There is a strange spike in solar power in Q4, which I suspect represents a catching up on smaller generators, who only report annually).

Consequently, when hydro power drops off in Q1, so too does total generation, as there is no slack in the system.


So where does all of this leave us?

Demand for power is at a high in winter. Yet it is also a time when hydro and solar power drops off. Clearly wind power cannot be ramped up to meet this extra demand, and neither can nuclear power. With thermal generation already running flat out, there is no option but to impose these sort of curbs and power shortages.

Moreover if China wants to replace the use of coal for indoor heating with electricity for environmental reasons, this problem will become more acute.

The Chinese government has no choice but to carry on burning more and more coal, gas and oil, to meet this winter demand. Clearly renewable energy is not up to the job.

If it does not, the CCP will find itself with a revolution on its hands.


December 23, 2020 at 12:00PM