The three weeks of severe weather also stranded millions of migrant workers trying to return home for the Spring Festival and caused at least 80 deaths, the official Xinhua news service reported.
They are at the limits of their capacity.
Economic losses have been estimated at 80 billion yuan (U.S. $11 billion), including damage to crops.
The closing of ice-covered rail lines and highways paralyzed transport in central and eastern provinces, but the effects on the power system proved even more serious.
Cities like Chenzhou in Hunnan province were left without electricity or water for nearly two weeks. Cell-phone service also stopped in much of the country when base stations lost power.
On Jan. 23, the official People’s Daily reported temporary shutoffs in 13 provinces served by the Central China Power Grid. The outages were caused by an “acute shortage” in coal stockpiles, leaving power stations with only seven days of supplies.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Philip Andrews-Speed—an energy expert at the University of Dundee in Edinburgh, Scotland—said that China’s “infrastructure and the financial incentives that underpin this supply of energy, in this case coal, are just not resilient to shock.”
“They are at the limits of their capacity,” Andrews-Speed added.
Andrews-Speed said that lack of resilience rather than reliance on coal is the main trouble with China’s power system, but that rail-transport limits have made the supply problem worse.
“The rail system has always been, for 20 years or more, a key bottleneck in the energy system to deliver coal from the north of the country to where it is needed in the center and south of the country,” he said.
“Traditionally, they would have shipped the coal earlier in the year from the coal mines to the power stations, but this just hasn’t happened this year.”
Robert Ebel, chairman of the energy program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, blamed bad planning and insufficient investment in infrastructure for the power crisis.
“If you have an inadequate infrastructure, which Beijing certainly would be aware of, you don’t let your coal supplies get that low, down to seven days,” Ebel said.
Ebel said that while China has staked its energy security on its huge coal reserves, transport problems bring the reliability of supply “sharply under question.”
“The first step would be to spend billions of dollars to improve the infrastructure,” he said.
“You can’t have internal energy security if you don’t have a good, solid infrastructure to move the various kinds of fuels around.”
Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.