China’s record heat wave, which began in June, has evaporated more than half of the electricity generation capacity in Sichuan, a southwestern province that usually gets 81 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric power plants. This decrease in energy supply, at a time when the need for cooling has increased demand, is putting industrial production and daily life on hold in the region.
And as the power supply has become unreliable, the government has imposed charging restrictions on electric vehicles to prioritize the most critical daily electricity needs.
As Chinese publications have reported, finding a working charging station in Sichuan and the neighboring Chongqing region, a task that took minutes before the heat wave, took up to two hours this week. Most public charging stations, including those operated by leading electric vehicle brands such as Tesla and China’s NIO and XPeng, are closed in the region due to government restrictions on commercial electricity use.
A screenshot sent to MIT Technology Review by a Chinese Tesla owner in Sichuan, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, shows that on August 24, only two of Tesla’s 31 Supercharger stations in the capital of the province, Chengdu or nearby, were working. like normal
In addition to facing mandatory service suspensions, EV owners are also encouraged or forced to charge only during off-peak hours. In fact, the leading national operator, TELD, has closed more than 120 charging stations in the region from 8am to midnight, the peak hours for electricity consumption. State Grid, China’s largest state-owned electric utility, also builds and operates electric vehicle charging stations; announced on August 19 that in three provinces that have more than 140 million residents and 800,000 electric vehicles in total, the company will offer 50% off coupons if drivers charge at night. State Grid is also reducing the efficiency of 350,000 charging points during the day, so individual vehicle charging times would be five to six minutes longer, but the total energy consumed during peak hours would drop.
The impact is evident in videos shared on Chinese social media, showing long queues of electric vehicles waiting outside the few charging stations that do work, even after midnight. Electric taxi drivers have been particularly hard hit, as their livelihoods depend on their vehicles. “I started waiting in line at 8:30pm yesterday and only started charging at around 5am,” a taxi driver in Chengdu told an EV influencer. “You’re basically always waiting in line. Like today, I haven’t even had much business, but now I’m in line again. And the battery is going down fast.”
Charging challenges are also pushing some people back to using fossil fuels. The Tesla owner in Sichuan plans to visit Chengdu for work this week, but decided to drive his other car, a gas car, for fear of not being able to find a place to charge up before returning home. Another driver in Chengdu, who owns a plug-in hybrid, told MIT Technology Review that he switched to gas this week even though he usually sticks with electric because it’s a little cheaper.
The sudden difficulty in charging in Sichuan and neighboring provinces has caught the electric vehicle industry by surprise. “A large-scale energy shortage like this is still something we’ve never seen [in China],” says Lei Xing, an auto industry analyst and former editor-in-chief of China Auto Review. He says the climate disaster is a reminder to the industry that while China leads the world in many metrics of electric vehicle adoption, there are still infrastructure weaknesses that need to be addressed. “China already seems to have a good charging infrastructure… but once something like these power restrictions happen, the problems are exposed. All EV owners who rely on public charging points are having problems now ” says Xing.