Power cuts call for energy efficiency

By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-10 14:53
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A "hurricane" of power cuts is blowing across China.

Just last weekend, Handan prefecture in Hebei province cut the power supply to dozens of iron and steel, coal, and coke plants.

On Monday, the city government of Tangshan - another major iron and steel production center in Hebei - set production targets for every one of the 30 plants under its jurisdiction for the rest of the year. It warned that the city will cut the supply of power and water to any business that overproduces. On average, these plants will have to reduce their production by 4 percent.

Hebei is not alone. Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces instituted similar schemes in August. On Sept 2, the Liuzhou Iron and Steel Plant in South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region stopped several of its assembly lines. Because of the month-long stoppage, the plant expects to cut its production by some 300,000 tons.

Such drastic measures reflect local governments' resolve to meet the national goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve energy efficiency.

China has promised to reduce its CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 20 percent between 2006 and the end of this year. But it is an uphill battle. In the first three months of this year, China's GDP grew by 11.9 percent, but overall industrial power usage surged by 28 percent.

In a way, local governments are paying for the policies they instituted to boost local GDP figures. Some local governments even lowered electricity prices for some industries with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

The current campaign is painful for many plants, whose managers complain they are losing market share while their competitors not only expand their markets but also make more profit as the price of steel products continues to rise.

While we may applaud the political will of local governments as they try to cut energy usage and CO2 emissions, we must question the measures' effectiveness, sustainability, and impact on workers' incomes.

Local media have reported that Anping county in Heibei went so far as to cut electricity in local hospitals, residential quarters, and rural villages. As a result, the leading county hospital had to close its door every four days. Many local shops, restaurants and garages had to shut down. In some cases, schoolteachers had to give up using overhead projectors.

Without electricity, farmers found it difficult to irrigate their fields, while local processing factories were slapped with fines for missing deadlines.

Amidst public anger, Anping county restored the daily power supply for local residents. Clearly, power cuts are only a temporary measure. They do not provide a long-lasting solution to building a sustainable, energy-efficient and low-carbon economy.

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We Chinese emit less CO2 per capita than most Westerners. However, we must recognize that our industries consume three to four times more energy per unit of GDP than most other economies, and eight times more than Japan.

According to Li Yizhong, minister of industry and information technology, 15 to 25 percent of 18 key industries need upgrading to shed backward processes.

These will be replaced by energy-efficient and environmentally friendly industries, the central government announced on Wednesday.

Despite the inconvenience, local governments must take serious steps to encourage industries to adopt clean technologies and cut consumption of natural resources. They must take responsibility for cleaning up the air, the rivers, and the land, not only to comply with national goals or to fulfill China's pledge to the world, but also to insure the well-being of their children and grandchildren.

The author is Assistant Editor-in-Chief of China Daily. She can be reached at lixing@chinadaily.com.cn.