What if climate change itself provided a lifeline to fossil fuels?
That’s what’s shaping up to happen in Asia this summer. The continent’s largest economies have been racing to install more renewable generation, with India targeting 500 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 and China likely to connect 160 GW of wind and solar this year alone. If the continent’s hydroelectric dams are able to avoid the desperate drought conditions seen last year, that pace of buildout might be enough to fulfil all the increase in electricity demand, obviating the need to burn more coal.
Unfortunately, that prospect is looking less likely than it was only a few months ago, as regional climate outlooks suggest the coming summer will be hot and dry.
Yunnan province, which contains the headwaters of the Yangtze River that feeds many of the vast dams China has constructed over the past few decades, has been gripped by severe drought in recent months, according to the official China Daily. The provincial capital of Kunming has had the driest start to the year since 1985, with rainfall at about 10% of typical levels, the paper reported.
Conditions are even worse than they were last year, when the nation experienced its second-driest summer on record.
The Yangtze may face drought this year even as other river basins experience floods, the Ministry of Water Resources said last month. Economic planners in Yunnan have told local aluminum smelters, one of the most power-hungry sectors of the economy, to cap output and purchase more coal and coal-fired power, the South China Morning Post reported.
Electricity production is already suffering. Nationwide hydro generation in the first quarter of the year came to 204 terawatt-hours, a drop of nearly 8% from the same period last year. That’s particularly worrying because China has more dams now than ever. In the first quarter, they were producing power at no more than about 26% of full capacity, the worst performance since 2014.
Water levels at the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest power station, peaked about 15 meters below their normal levels last winter.
What’s happening in subtropical and tropical Asia is the reverse of the pattern seen in recent years in more temperate regions.
It’s the expectation of a torrid summer that has sent
coal stockpiles in Asia’s biggest economies soaring
in recent months. Renewables may be displacing
fossil fuels in the cooler months, but as climate
change warms the whole planet, it’s heat itself
that’s providing them a lifeline in the summer
With winter weather getting warmer at a faster pace than summer peaks are getting hotter, the seasonal balance of electricity demand in North America and Europe has been flattening, making a more favorable environment for renewable power that can’t be switched on and off.
In hotter countries, however, the opposite may be happening. Heating demand in the coldest months is already minimal, so the impact of a warming climate is that seasonal patterns grow peakier, with the thrum of a billion air conditioners sending electricity demand surging in the hottest months of the year.
You can see this in the seasonal pattern of fossil-fuel generation in China. In spring, when heating and cooling demand is weakest and wind farms are running at maximum output, the growth in thermal power is minimal. Output in May last year was just 12.3 TWh more than in the same month four years earlier, an increase of just 3.5%.
In the peak demand month of August, however, thermal power generation was 139 TWh higher, a 32% jump. Only coal and hydro are able to provide the seasonal surge in output that’s needed to meet this sort of spike — and when rainfall dries up dams, solid fuel is the only candidate left.
Those conditions will worsen as the climate warms, according to a paper released last month by academics at Nanjing University
of Information Science and Technology.
The authors found that there were 10 “energy droughts” in the Yangtze basin each year between 2007 and 2021, reducing the basin’s hydropower potential by an average of 26% during each event and clustering in the summer.
China isn’t alone. India has a similar mix of hydroelectricity and coal on the grid, combined with a huge population and blistering hot months.
Summer sales of air conditioners will be as much as 20% higher this year, Business Insider India quoted a local appliance manufacturers association as saying in March. Parts of Southeast Asia, facing parched conditions over coming months, are in the same boat.
It’s the expectation of a torrid summer that has sent coal stockpiles in Asia’s biggest economies soaring in recent months — and sooner or later, all that carbon is going to end up getting burned.
Renewables may be displacing fossil fuels in the cooler months, but as climate change warms the whole planet, it’s heat itself that’s providing them a lifeline in the summer.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.