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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
China swelters as energy crisis soars
By Louisa Lim
BBC correspondent in Beijing

Child drinking water from water bottle
It's going to be a long, hot summer
China has released new figures showing its crude oil imports soared by nearly 40% in the first five months of the year as the country needs ever more oil to fuel its explosive economic growth.

Meanwhile, China's coal stockpile has plunged to its lowest level in 20 years.

Faced with a power squeeze, it has raised electricity prices by 5% while coming up with other ingenious energy-saving schemes.

Power cuts

Chinese people are preparing for the long, hot summer.

Cooling down is getting harder as this year, China's creaky electricity system is under more strain than ever before - with demand up an estimated 15% from the previous year.

The consequences are beginning to impinge on everyday life.

For me, the first sign of this was on going home one day, when I noticed there were no lights on at all in my block.

The authorities are well aware of the power crunch - and that China's massive economic growth spurt is needing more electricity than can be supplied.

The warning signs are that these power shortages are here to stay, with a spate of reports in the state-run press warning of large scale blackouts.

In Shanghai, the country's commercial hub, factories are being encouraged to shift production to nighttime and weekends to avoid peak time electricity - and even to send their beleaguered workers home if the temperature rises to 35 degrees.

Sweaty future

Meanwhile in the corridors of bureaucracy, someone has apparently decided that air-conditioning is the main culprit responsible for these shortages - reportedly they suck up 40% of electricity consumption in cities.

Shanghai is leading the way in the battle against the air-cons.

It has set limits as to how cold your air conditioning can be set - for government offices, shops and entertainment venues, 26 degrees is the bottom line.

In Beijing for the moment, a softer approach is being taken - with plans to make hotels set their standard temperature one degree higher at 23 degrees.

Our offices are currently allowed to be an oasis of cool, but for how long is still unclear. The signs are that we should prepare for the worst.

Dressing down

Ominous articles in the state-run press say people should stop wearing business suits in summer, so they can turn off their office cooling systems - all fine and good in theory, but somehow I cannot see China's new businessmen doing deals in shorts, vests and flip-flops.

But these are short-term measures and China is facing a long-term shortage - so it is looking to diversify in all senses of the word.

Beijing has recently announced plans to generate 10% of its power from renewable sources by 2010.

And it is looking further afield for oil supplies - courting oil producers in Africa and central Asia.

The search for alternative energy supplies is beginning to shape China's geopolitical aims - as China's economic and political security is increasingly bound up in its energy security.

But building new alliances and new pipelines takes time and in the meantime, chances are we'll be fiddling with our air conditioners and buying new flip-flops.

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