A slowing economy means keeping the lights on in China is getting a whole lot easier.
The China Electricity Council, a state-backed industry group, is trimming its estimate of just how much power the country needs, after weak third-quarter economic data on Monday reinforced fears about a slowdown of China’s economy. The official Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday quoted Ouyang Changyu, deputy secretary general of the China Electricity Council, as saying the group had revised down its full-year electricity-demand estimate to 1% growth this year, from 2% previously. As recently as 2011, electricity demand had grown by 12% annually.
The revised estimate reflects both a slowdown in China’s overall growth rate—which is struggling to hit the government’s target of about 7% this year—as well as important changes in the type of growth China is experiencing. The government wants to make the country less reliant on the energy-intensive sectors that propelled growth for four decades and instead shift toward cleaner and higher-paying industries and companies, ranging from financial services to web-based startups. In the first nine months of 2015, electricity demand has grown by .8%, down from 3.9% growth in the same period last year.
Electricity demand that is falling far faster than the government’s GDP data is among the reasons economists and investors are skeptical over the accuracy of official growth figures. The government said Monday GDP rose 6.9% in the first quarter. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in 2007 – back when he was a more junior official — that he relied on electricity data among other hard figures to get a truer picture of the country’s economic health.
Beyond electricity, other reasons for skepticism over the data include the decline of both imports and exports during the third quarter, weaker-than-expected industrial production and decelerating fixed-asset investment.
The ramifications of China’s slowing demand for electricity are global, and could contribute to weaker bottom lines at big companies such as coal and natural gas producers. Hong Kong-listed coal giant China Shenhua Energy Co. said its coal sales had plummeted by nearly one-fifth this year. The company is exporting far more coal this year than it’s importing — a sharp turnabout from 2014, when it imported four times as much coal as it exported.
The decline in electricity demand growth could also further weigh on natural gas—a cleaner alternative to coal in electricity production—which has suffered from stagnant demand this year.