Drought in China highlights the energy challenge as the climate warms

The water level of the Jialing River, one of the tributaries of the Yangtze River, has decreased due to high temperatures and drought.

Zhong Guilin / VCG via Getty Images

  • The warmer and drier climate is set to push China’s already huge energy consumption upwards in the coming years.
  • Drought has hit hydroelectric power plants along the Yangtze River, leaving citizens and businesses in the southwest without electricity.
  • Hydropower is a key driver for China achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
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China’s record-breaking heatwaves and drought have highlighted the considerable challenges the world’s second largest economy faces to meet its energy needs in the years to come in a changing climate.

The warmer and drier climate is set to push China’s already huge energy consumption upwards in the coming years. This means that policymakers will not only have to skillfully manage a transition from fossil fuels to green energy, but also address shortcomings in its renewable energy grid such as hydropower and wind.

The limits of China’s existing renewable grid were discovered last month when drought disrupted hydroelectric power plants along the Yangtze River, leaving millions of citizens and businesses in the country’s southwest without electricity.

“This is a stark reminder that the low-carbon transition in our energy supply has yet to be accomplished,” Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, told Al Jazeera. “And it will be more difficult to achieve than expected.”

Hydropower was seen as an essential pillar of China’s ambitions to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

Achieving these goals, not to mention satisfying the industry and citizens’ need for abundant and reliable energy, would be a challenge even without the inefficiencies hindering China’s green energy grid.

Three Gorges Experts say China is far from reaching its renewable energy generation potential [File: Reuters]

In the southwestern province of Sichuan, renewable energies have the capacity to produce 85% of the energy needed, while actual consumption only reaches 38% due to storage capacity, according to Ma, who complains of a “vast gap. “between potential and reality.

But he said China could learn from Europe, where Germany draws on hydro and nuclear power in Norway and France, respectively, when unfavorable weather hinders solar and wind power generation.

“Europe is having difficulty in such coordination, because it is losing a base load from natural gas,” said Ma. “But their coordination in general is better.”

Some experts believe China could do a better job in energy distribution by reducing red tape.

“In addition to upgrading generation and transmission infrastructure, the government will need to facilitate the way energy is transmitted and sold across the country,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a researcher at the Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore Al Jazeera.

READ | China has the hottest August since registrations began

“This is constrained by administrative obstacles – planned sales – and political – local protectionism. As a result, the power available in one area is not always passed on to another area.”

Greater efficiency could transform the scale of China’s hydroelectric sector, the largest in the world, especially in locations like Sichuan, which gets 80% of its power from hydroelectric dams.

China’s hydroelectric capacity increased sixfold between 2000 and 2019, when it accounted for nearly a third of global capacity, according to the think tank of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At the same time, China’s energy needs soared, quintupling between 2000 and 2019, according to the Brookings Institute. Last year alone, consumption grew by around 10% despite the widespread blockade to control Covid-19.

A mostly dry riverbed in drought conditions in China.Authorities across China last month introduced energy rationing amid a record-breaking drought [File: China Daily via Reuters]

Yet the drying up of reservoirs during a six-week heatwave that began in June has drawn attention to the dangers of relying heavily on a single energy source.

“Hydropower, just like solar and wind, is not as consistent and stable as fossil fuels,” said Ma. “So we need to find more sophisticated solutions to achieve a low-carbon transition.”

In Chongqing, home to the factories of major brands including Honda, Ford Motor and Isuzu Motors, officials last month ordered companies to temporarily suspend operations to save energy as temperatures soared to 45 degrees Celsius. In Dazhou, a city of 5.4 million in central Sichuan, authorities have introduced electricity rationing for commercial spaces, offices and homes.

Elsewhere, workers in central Jiangxi province worked 15-hour shifts to drill wells for drought-stricken villagers, while farmers in the province and neighboring Hunan were left searching for water sources to irrigate their crops. collected them.

READ | Heat waves and fires to worsen air pollution, the UN says

Official data released in late August indicated that July’s scorching heat, before the worst heat wave, caused losses of 2.73 billion yuan ($ 391 million) and affected 5.5 million people on 185,000 hectares. of land.

Despite China’s green ambitions, the energy shortage has prompted authorities to order coal-fired power plants to generate more energy.

“China remains very dependent on coal-fired energy, which is water-intensive,” Jonna Nyman, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sheffield, told Al Jazeera. “China’s energy supply is already limited and these challenges further strain an already strained system.”

In the longer term, Beijing is banking on a number of ambitious projects included in its fourteenth five-year plan for developing energy from renewable and non-fossil fuels, including plans to build wind and solar power plants with a capacity equivalent to all renewable energy. European network within the next eight years.

But even as the government works to strengthen China’s green energy capacity, the industry will have its important role to play, Ma said.

“Another lesson from the drought is for businesses: they shouldn’t try to put all their eggs in one basket,” Ma said.

“Yes, there is cheap hydropower in the Southwest, so we have seen many energy-intensive industries and supply chains flock to this region. But in the meantime, we need to recognize the instability of that non-fossil energy and we have yet to pay close attention to energy efficiency “.

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