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Energy initiative to cut smog worsens winter gas shortage

By HOU LIQIANG/DU JUAN/ZHENG JINRAN/ZHANG YU | China Daily | Updated: 2017-12-15 06:52

Children in Hebei province study in a classroom heated by solar panels donated by a local company. [Photo/Xinhua]

Smog reduction

The government has been working for years to replace coal with natural gas to reduce pollution, particularly during winter, when levels of airborne pollutants are on average 30 percent higher than during other seasons as a result of the use of coal-fired generators, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

However, large-scale industrial emissions and rampant coal use in the countryside are the major causes of the chronic seasonal smog in the northern regions.

"China consumes about 200 million metric tons of coal every year through small-scale users such as rural households, 20 percent of which are in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster," Chen Jining, the former environment minister, said in January, after several cities saw pollution levels rise off the charts.

The gas-for-coal strategy has already had an effect, according to official monitoring data. Between Oct 1 and Dec 9, the average concentration of PM2.5-fine particulate matter that is hazardous to human health-in Shijiazhuang was 82 micrograms per cu m, a decline of about 47 percent from the same period last year.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, the average level between Jan 1 to Nov 30 was 58 mcg/cu m, a year-on-year decline of 13.4 percent.

Rural residents whose new gas boilers are up and running have been quick to notice the benefits.

"Our coal boiler often filled the house with choking smoke and stained my clothes with soot," said Lyu Yafeng, a 30-year-old villager in Baoding's Zhengding county. "Plus, the gas unit means I don't have to get up on cold winter nights to put more coal on the fire."

Qi Si'nyu, 55, who lives in a nearby village, echoed Qi's words: "I had to fetch black coal from outside at least three times a day, and also had to remove the ash at least twice a day, which often left my home dirty."

The Hebei government has offered three years of subsidies to help families who switch to clean energy boilers.

Those who opt to use electricity will be refunded for 85 percent of the total cost of equipment and installation-up to 7,400 yuan ($1,119)-and 0.2 yuan per kilowatt-hour providing they don't use more than 10,000 kWh during the heating season.

For gas boilers, the government will refund 70 percent of the equipment and installation costs-up to 2,700 yuan-and 1 yuan per cu m for residents who consume no more than 1,200 cu m during the same period.

However, Lyu complained that natural gas is more costly, even with the subsidies.

Lyu said it used to cost 2,000 to 3,000 yuan to heat his home throughout the winter. Now, he estimates the figure will be about 7,200 yuan, roughly 60 yuan a day, including the subsidy.

"I keep the boiler on 24 hours a day, but it doesn't heat all the rooms. On the second floor, I only have heat in two bedrooms to save as much money as possible," he said.

"Some of my neighbors say the cost is even higher than in the city. They joke that they may sell their farmland and rent an apartment downtown because they can't afford the heating bill."

Xiao Tongxiang, a resident of Guozhuang village, said the price difference means many of the 200 or so families in his community would rather use their coal boilers this year, despite already having new gas units and a steady supply of fuel.

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