China’s heat wave is wreaking havoc on electric vehicle drivers


China’s record heat wave that began in June has wiped out more than half of the hydropower generation capacity in Sichuan, a southwestern province that typically gets 81 percent of its electricity from hydropower. This reduced energy supply, at a time when the need for cooling has increased demand, is putting industrial production and daily life in the region on hold.

And as power has become unreliable, the government has introduced EV charging restrictions to prioritize more critical daily electricity needs.

As Chinese publications reported, finding a working charging station in Sichuan and the neighboring Chongqing region — a task that took a few minutes before the heat wave — took as much as two hours this week. The majority of public charging stations, including those operated by leading 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 Aug. 24, only two of Tesla’s 31 Supercharger stations in or near the provincial capital Chengdu were operating as normal.

Screenshot of all Tesla Supercharger stations near Chengdu.

In addition to mandatory service stops, EV owners are also encouraged or forced to charge only during off-peak hours. In fact, the leading local operator TELD closed over 120 charging stations in the region from 8am to midnight, the peak hours for electricity consumption. State Grid, China’s largest state-owned electricity company, also builds and operates EV charging stations; it announced on August 19 that in three provinces that have more than 140 million residents and a total of 800,000 electric vehicles, 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 will be five to six minutes longer, but the total power consumed during peak hours will decrease.

The impact is evident in videos shared on Chinese social media, which show long lines of electric cars waiting outside the few operating charging stations, even after midnight. Electric taxi drivers are particularly hard hit as their livelihood depends 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. “Basically, you’re always waiting in lines. Like today, I didn’t even have much to do, but now I’m back in line. And the battery goes down fast.

Refueling challenges are also pushing some people back to using fossil fuels. The Tesla owner in Sichuan planned to visit Chengdu on business this week, but decided to drive his other gas-powered car for fear of not finding a place to recharge before returning home. Another Chengdu driver who owns a plug-in hybrid told MIT Technology Review that she switched to gas this week, even though she usually sticks to electric because it’s a little cheaper.

The sudden difficulty in charging in Sichuan and neighboring provinces caught the EV industry by surprise. “A large-scale power shortage like this is still something we’ve never seen [in China],” says Lei Xin, an auto industry analyst and former editor-in-chief at China Auto Review. He says the climate disaster is a reminder to the industry that while China leads the world in many measures of EV adoption, there are still infrastructure weaknesses that need to be addressed. “China already seems to have a good charging infrastructure … but as soon as something like these power restrictions happen, the problems come to light. “All EV owners who rely on public charging stations are now in trouble,” Sin says.



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