China’s Power Scarcity – Short Pain or Structural Crisis? 中国电荒——阵痛还是结构性危机?

By Cheng Rui 成睿

NANJING, CHINA —  September-October is typically the peak production season for private enterprises in China, but in 2021 a shadow was cast over the early-autumn boom. A massive nationwide power scarcity began in mid-September, and the “pulling and restricting” electricity policies in several major manufacturing provinces have negatively impacted production capacity throughout the Chinese economy. Power supplies were so scarce, particularly in northeast China, that emergency civil power shutdowns were needed to secure the grid. As a result, people were living in fear and anxiety of unwarned power outages.

中国,南京 —— 在中国,每年的9月到10月是企业的生产旺季。但今年,从9月中旬开始的全国范围内大规模的“电荒”以及几个制造业大省“拉闸限电”的举措为今年的黄金生产季蒙上了一层阴影。在中国东北以及一些其他地区,电力供应一度匮乏到需要紧急关停居民用电来保障电网安全。一段时间内,人们生活在无预警断电的恐慌之中。

The implications of this power scarcity are deeper than many imagine. In addition to salient factors such as soaring coal prices, this period of power scarcity reflects two more fundamental trends: the rigidity of China’s current pricing system for coal-fired electricity; and the diminishing flexibility of the entire power system, brought about by China’s energy transition under its “double carbon” targets (carbon peaking by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060). The recent spell of power scarcity has left a deep impression on those who were directly impacted and implored international audiences to learn more about China’s power system.

此轮电荒的影响范围之广、程度之深超出很多人的想象。除了煤炭价格暴涨等偶发性因素,此轮电荒还反映出当下中国煤-电价格体系的不合理以及“双碳”目标(2030年前实现碳达峰,2060年前实现碳中和)下能源转型带来的电力系统稳定性的减弱。除了给经历过的人留下了深刻的印象,这场电荒还让更多的中国人乃至外国人开始关注中国的电力系统。

Jin, a Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) student who lives in Lu’An City in Anhui Province, said he experienced several unannounced power outages of nine to ten hours each from September 30-October 6. “The apartment went dark all of a sudden. Elevators were disabled. Our family had to climb more than ten floors in the dark to go out and return home.”

来自中美中心、家住安徽省六安市的金同学就告诉笔者,从9月30号到10月6号的这期间,他就经历了数次长达9到10个小时的没有通知的停电。“家里一下子就黑了,电梯也用不了,要摸着黑走十几层楼出门、回家”。

The power outages were not limited to the northeast. As early as May this year, power supply tensions were felt in southern China as well. Since mid-May, private enterprises in 17 of the 19 cities in Guangdong Province were forced to implement the  “orderly power supply” policy. This policy started with “open six, stop one” (i.e., companies ceased production for at least one day per week) before expanding to “open five, stop two” and later “open four, stop three.” Guangxi, Yunnan and other provinces have also developed their own orderly power plans. Implementation was initially arranged by local governments and power companies, but by mid-September the nationwide power supply scarcity forced some provinces to take a broad-brush approach – directly shutting down all manufacturing enterprises in their jurisdictions – to ensure the normal operation of the power grid.

早在今年五月,电力供应紧张的态势已经在华南地区初见端倪。从5月中旬开始,广东省19个地级市中的17个被迫开始对企业实行阶段性供电的“有序用电”政策。“有序用电”政策从“开六停一”向“开五停二”、“开四停三”层层加码。广西、云南等地也制定了相应的有序用电预案。而到了九月中旬,全国范围的电力供给短缺使得某些省份不得不直接紧急采取“一刀切”的手段——直接关停辖区内所有制造业企业——来保障电网正常运转。

The impact of these emergency power outages was lethal for some businesses. According to an anonymous source at The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, exporters that relied on the electric grid had to continue paying their employees and also pay breach of contract penalties of almost 300% of their original  contracts. Companies also had to bear the hidden costs of raw material depreciation, employee turnover, and loss of future orders. The emergency power needs of enterprises could only be temporarily relieved by renting generators. Thus, unexpected power outages also caused serious safety issues. A company in Liaoning Province suffered a blast furnace gas poisoning incident due to the shutdown of the exhaust system caused by a sudden outage. 

像这样无预警的紧急断电对于企业的影响是致命的。一位不愿透露姓名的业内人士告诉笔者,断电期间,企业不仅要继续支付员工的薪酬,很多出口企业还要支付几乎是合同金额300%的违约罚金。同时,企业还要承担原材料折旧、员工流失、未来订单流失等隐形成本。一些有紧急用电需求的企业也只能通过租借发电机暂时缓解。没有预警的断电还会带来很多安全问题。辽宁的一家公司因为突然断电、排风扇停摆而发生了高炉煤气中毒的事故。

According to Roger Rauger, Professor of Energy, Resources and Environment at the HNC, coal played an important role in these outages. “The causes of the power scarcity are very complex; it’s about China’s energy mix, its economy and even its politics, but a key element of the problem is coal.”

中美中心能源、资源与环境方向的教授罗福杰认为煤炭是此次电荒的关键因素。他说:“电荒的成因非常复杂,它关乎中国的能源结构、经济甚至是政治,但是问题的一个关键因素是煤炭。”

China is a major coal-burning country. According to statistics from the International Energy Agency (IEA), China’s share of coal-fired power generation was as high as 64% in 2020. Such a coal-dominated power system is bound to be impacted by changes in coal prices. From April-July of 2021, coal spot prices rose from 629 RMB per ton to nearly 840 RMB per ton due to global commodity inflation and the post-pandemic recovery of major economies. Since September, the weekly increase in coal spot prices has continued to rise. Coal futures also rose sharply, with the main futures closing price of power coal on the Zhengzhou Stock Exchange rising from 671 RMB per ton to 1982 RMB per ton from January-October. 

中国是一个燃煤大国。根据国际能源署(IEA)的统计数据,直到2020年,中国的燃煤发电占比仍高达64%,而这样一种煤电主导的电力体系必然受到煤炭价格变化的冲击。今年4月至7月,受到全球大宗商品通货膨胀以及各主要经济体经济复苏的影响,煤炭现货价格从629元每吨上涨到近840元每吨;而到了9月之后,煤炭现货价格的周涨幅继续扩大。煤炭期货价格亦呈现暴涨的态势,从今年1月到10月,郑商所动力煤主力期货收盘价从每吨671元上涨到1982元。

The Bohai-Rim Steam-Coal Price Index shows the rapid rise of coal since the end of 2020.

环渤海动力煤价格指数从2020年底起快速上升

Steam Coal Futures on Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange (ZCE) skyrocketed in the second half of 2021.

2021年下半年,郑州商品交易所动力煤期货价格飙升

Since China’s electricity prices are fixed by the government, the power market is not able to effectively transfer rising coal prices to the demand side. As a result, the pressure from rising coal prices has been concentrated on electricity providers. According to a report released by the China Electricity Council, in some of the electricity generation corporations, more than 70% of the thermal power plants were losing money in the first half of 2021. With such high coal prices, companies that produce coal-fired electricity have been losing money for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they generate.

但由于中国的电价受到政府控制,因此电力市场并不能将煤炭价格的上涨有效地传递到需求端,这就导致了煤炭价格上涨带来的所有的压力全部集中到了发电端。根据中国电力企业联合会发布的报告,今年上半年,煤电企业亏损面达到70%。在这样的极端煤炭价格下,煤电企业每发一度电都会亏损。

Most of China’s power generation enterprises are state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and are not necessarily driven primarily by the profit motive on an institutional level. Even so, the salary and promotion of employees in SOEs are directly linked to business performance in the current appraisal mechanism. Thus, these SOEs are reluctant to generate power because power generation is reducing profits, thereby damaging employees’ prospects for career advancement. 

尽管中国大多数发电企业都是国有企业,但是在当下的考核机制中,国有企业的员工薪酬与升迁均与经营业绩直接挂钩,继续大规模发电直接意味着亏损,所以企业的发电意愿极其勉强。

There are many reasons for the spike in thermal coal prices, including international inflation, the closure of coal mines, and increased demand brought about by the improvement of the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the power scarcity is not all about coal. In order to achieve carbon neutrality, China is accelerating the installation of hydropower, wind power, and other clean power equipment. Wind power in Inner Mongolia and hydropower in Yunnan have provided effective supplements for the power system during the peak season in the past few years. But due to this year’s climate anomalies and the reduction of snow and ice melt water in the Himalayas, the power generation capacity of Inner Mongolia and Yunnan is significantly lower than previous years, which exacerbated electricity supply tensions. 

煤炭价格飙升的原因有很多,包括国际通胀,关停煤矿以及疫情状况缓解带来的需求增长。但电荒不只是因为煤炭。为了加速实现碳中和的目标,中国正在加速装机水电、风电等清洁电力设备。蒙西的风电、云南的水电在过去几年的用电高峰季就为火电提供了很好的支撑与辅助。但由于今年的气候异常以及喜马拉雅山冰雪融水的减少,蒙西与云南的发电量较往年相比均有明显的降低,这是导致今年电荒的另外一个重要原因。

The instability of renewable energy sources increases the volatility of power supply. Such volatility can exacerbate the hazards that episodic events, such as climate disasters and economic crises, can bring to energy supply. These issues manifested themselves in Texas’s power scarcity earlier last year. In addition to the isolation of Texas’s electric grid from the rest of the country, another reason for the scarcity was the sudden snowstorm that damaged some of the state’s power generation and transmission facilities. The shutdown of wind and solar power, which together generate nearly 30% of Texas’ electricity, during extreme weather exacerbated the strain on Texas’s power supply.

新能源自身的不稳定性增加了电力供给的波动,而这样的波动会加剧偶发事件,比如气候灾害、经济危机等,对能源供给带来的危害。今年年初美国德克萨斯州的大规模电荒也很好地印证了新能源电力的这一问题。德克萨斯州电荒的最主要原因是其相对独立的电网系统以及突如其来的暴风雪损坏了该州部分发电与输电设施。但不能忽视的是,发电量占德克萨斯州近30%的风电与太阳能在极端天气下的停摆加剧了德州电力供给的紧张局面。

Several structural problems have contributed to the electricity scarcity. These problems include conflicts between competing policy objectives, such as the market-based coal prices and fixed electricity prices; the unstable supply of renewable energy amidst the push for carbon neutrality; the pressure of economic growth targets; the pressure to reduce emissions under the “dual control” policy; and even energy competition between different regions within China. China’s wind, hydropower, and solar resources are often located in undeveloped provinces in the west, and these provinces tend to keep clean power in their own provinces due to the pressure of carbon neutral targets and their own economic development. Keeping clean power in western provinces hinders the implementation of the “West-East Power Transmission”  project, which aims to transmit electricity from China’s west to its east and further modify the broader landscape of energy and economic development. 

一些结构性的问题也是导致此次电荒的重要原因。这些问题包括政策目标之间的矛盾,比如市场化的煤炭价格与固定的电价;不稳定的新能源电力供给与碳中和目标;经济增长的指标压力与“能耗双控”下的减排压力;甚至还有地区之间的博弈。由于中国的风电、水电以及太阳能资源往往位于西部较为落后的省份,这些省份处于碳中和指标的压力以及自身经济发展的考量,往往倾向于将清洁电力留在自己省内,这将阻碍“西电东输”工程的施行并进一步影响全中国的能源布局与经济发展。

In order to avoid normalized electricity shortages in the future, institutional changes are needed: a new electricity pricing system needs to be established, more stringent carbon emissions constraints need to be established, and China’s nascent carbon trading system needs to be strengthened to promote local economic transformation. 

为了避免电荒成为未来的常态,中国需要系统性的变革,包括新的电力价格系统,更完善的碳排放约束体系以及能够更好地促进地方经济转型的碳交易市场。

To get to the root of the problem, technology needs to make great strides. Professor Zhao Liang, Vice President of the Institute of Natural Resources at Nanjing University, believes energy policy should be formulated with energy security as the first priority, so currently China cannot quit burning coal. Thus, the development of CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage) technology in China is particularly important to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. Professor Raufer believes that with the significant increase in the installed capacity of renewable energy generation devices in various countries, technologies such as power storage and intelligent grid deployment will become the key to stable renewable energy output.

而要从根本上解决这一问题,技术发展是关键。南京大学自然资源研究院副院长赵良教授认为,能源政策的制定要以能源安全为首位,所以当前中国不能放弃煤炭,而在这样的情况下,CCUS(碳捕捉,利用与储存)技术的发展就对中国碳中和目标的实现显得尤为重要。罗福杰教授认为,随着各国新能源发电装置装机量的大幅提升,电力储存、电网智能调配等技术将成为新能源电能能否提高稳定性的关键。

On the bright side, 2021’s power scarcity has accelerated China’s power sector reform. Since October, the Development and Reform Commission of China has sent signals indicating the marketization of electricity prices for commercial and industrial users. The corresponding market, regulatory and technical systems are currently being determined. It is envisioned that in the future, all commercial and industrial electricity in China will be traded through the electricity market, especially the electricity spot market. These market mechanisms may be able to effectively guide enterprises to stagger production in a way that maintains steady supply for consumers. 

某种意义上,今年的电荒加速了中国的电力系统的改革。10月以来,发改委以及中央经济工作会议相继释放出工商业企业电力价格市场化的信号。相应的市场体系、监管体系乃至技术体系都在逐步地建立、规范与完善。电力市场改革的目标是,所有工商业企业用户都将通过电力市场,特别是电力现货市场,进行电力交易。市场化的机制能够引导企业错峰用电,合理规划生产,从而保障总体的能源供给。

Power sector reform is difficult to implement because it involves the interests of many parties, including power plants, the State Grid, local governments, and commercial and industrial consumers. In the short-term, the likelihood of regular, recurring power outages is unclear. 

但是因为涉及到从发电厂到电网到用户乃至地方政府官员等社会各方各面的利益,电力市场改革很难一蹴而就。在一个较近的未来,电荒是否会再次出现或频繁出现,这还是一个未知数。

China’s widespread power scarcity was a reminder that economic production – as well as daily life for ordinary people – will be changed and challenged in the coming years. While national governments will adjust their own energy mix, humanity at large will be called to a more primal, elemental task: cooperation.

2021年中国的大规模的电荒对于我们是一种警醒。随着全球变暖的加速以及碳中和目标的临近,经济生产,乃至我们的日常生活,都有了变化与新的挑战。尽管每个国家都会做出相应的能源结构调整,但更为重要的是人类应当合作去争取一个更好的未来。

Cheng Rui is reporting from Nanjing, China.

成睿,报道于中国南京

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