Chinese County Resorts to Blackouts in Pursuit of Energy Efficiency

With end of current five-year plan looming, many regions are desperately pulling the plug to meet usage targets

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by Jonathan Watts, Guardian

No TV. No internet. No air conditioning. Traffic lights off. Hospitals deprived of electricity. Tens of thousands of household fridges and freezers without power. Milk curdling. Vegetables rotting. The risks of delaying energy-saving measures have been all too apparent in a Chinese region where the authorities initiated draconian rationing last month to achieve the state’s efficiency targets.

Anping County, in Hebei Province, cut electricity to homes, factories and public buildings for 22 hours every three days in a radical move that has highlighted both the serious last-minute effort that China is making to achieve environmental goals and the immense long-term difficulty of shifting away from a dirty, wasteful model of economic growth.

There are less than four months left until the end of China’s current five-year plan, during which the economy is supposed to have become 20% more energy efficient. That target (which measures energy use relative to GDP growth) is crucial for a nation that wants to move up the economic value chain and prove to the world that it is making a significant contribution toward tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

Progress towards this goal was initially good, with a 14.4% gain in efficiency until last year. But it was tilted off track in the first three months of 2010 by huge infrastructure spending – largely on energy-intensive steel and cement projects – aimed at warding off the worst effects of the global economic downturn.

This meant China’s economy surged forward at more than double-digit pace, but was having to burn more coal for each yuan of productivity. After this was revealed, the state council – China’s cabinet – ordered the provinces to step up their efforts to reach the energy efficiency target by the end of the year.

During the summer, Zhejiang and Jiangsu – two of the most industrially advanced provinces – began intermittently cutting power supplies to factories. Similar measures have since been adopted in other regions and applied at a local level in different ways.

Last month, Anping went further than anyone by introducing rolling 22-hour electricity cuts among subunits. According to local media, at least two hospitals – Boai and Renmin – and one set of traffic lights were affected. Residents were given advance notice to stock up on candles and make other preparations.

"It was extremely inconvenient," grumbled a Mrs Wang, who declined to give her first name. "All the food in our fridge went off." But she said her shop, which sells diesel-powered generators, did a strong trade among local factories, most of which make wire fencing.

The indiscriminate cuts impacted industrial estates and poor rural communities alike. In Liukou village, one farmer – a Mr Liu – said he was told the measures were being applied for energy conservation.

"We don’t have many electrical appliances in our home so it didn’t affect me that much. We just had to hang around because we couldn’t watch TV as usual."

After a media outcry and central government criticism of Anping’s "unscientific approach", the local authorities rescinded the rolling cuts and apologised to residents.

The China News Service quoted Shi Yuehui, the county’s deputy head, admitting the plan was simple-minded and inadequately thought through.

But the challenge of making up lost ground remains fierce, prompting speculation that tighter energy controls will be introduced in the worst performing provinces and the most energy intensive industries, such as steel-making, coking and cement production.

Last month, the government ordered the closure of more than 2,000 highly polluting, unsafe or energy inefficient plants. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said this week that such measures would continue regardless of the cost. "We will achieve this goal even if it means losing GDP growth," he told a press conference in Tianjin.

In Hebei, local media report that several steel companies are intermittently idle. Last week, the largest steel producer, Hebei Iron and Steel Group, announced plans to trim output by 6%. HSBC forecasts a rise in global steel prices due to falling production in China until at least the end of the current five year plan.

Reliant on coal and energy intensive industries – often outsourced from the west – China is trying to improve efficiency by replacing old industrial centres and transport networks with state-of-the-art power plants, high-speed rail networks and greater use of renewables. But the speed and scale pose unprecedented challenges.

In the past year, China has overtaken the US as the world’s biggest consumer of energy, according to the International Energy Agency. It has also become the biggest car market and the main emitter of greenhouse gases. Whether China’s economy cannot just become bigger, but leaner, healthier and more efficient is an increasingly pressing question for the global environment.

Additional reporting by Cui Zheng

(Republished with permission)