China’s record heat wave, which began in June, has evaporated more than half of the hydroelectric power generation capacity in Sichuan, a southwestern province that typically gets 81% of its electricity from hydropower. The drop in energy supply, at a time when the need for cooling has increased demand, is pausing industrial production and daily life in the region.
And as electricity supply has become unreliable, the government has imposed charging limits on electric vehicles in order to prioritize the most critical daily electricity needs.
As Chinese publications have reported, finding a working charging station in Sichuan and 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 major EV 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 the 31 Tesla Supercharger stations in or near the provincial capital, Chengdu, they worked. as 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 main local operator, TELD, has closed over 120 charging stations in the region from 8am to midnight, the peak electricity usage hours. State Grid, China’s largest state-owned electric utility company, also builds and operates EV charging stations; it announced on August 19 that in three provinces that have over 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 charging times for vehicles would be five to six minutes longer, but the total power consumed during peak hours would decrease.
The impact is visible in videos shared on Chinese social media, which show long lines of electric cars waiting outside the few charging stations that are working, even after midnight. Electric taxi drivers have been hit particularly hard, as their livelihoods depend on their vehicles. “I started queuing 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 didn’t even get much work, but now I’m back in line. And the battery is dying fast.”
Charging challenges are also pushing some people to use fossil fuels. The Tesla owner in Sichuan is planning to visit Chengdu for work this week, but decided to drive his other car, a gas-powered one, out of fear that he wouldn’t find a place to recharge before returning home. Another driver from Chengdu, who owns a plug-in hybrid, told MIT Technology Review that she switched to gas this week even though she usually sticks to electric power because it’s a little cheaper.
The sudden difficulty of charging in Sichuan and neighboring provinces has caught the EV industry by surprise. “A major power outage like this is still something we’ve never seen [in China],” says Lei Xing, an auto industry analyst and former editor-in-chief at China Auto Review. He says the climate disaster is reminding the industry that while China leads the world in many metrics of EV adoption, there are still infrastructure weaknesses that need to be addressed. “It seems like China already has a good charging infrastructure… but once something like these power restrictions happen, the problems are exposed. All EV owners who rely on public charging posts are in trouble now,” says Xing.