Coal under fire
While many are wondering whether U.S. president-elect Donald Trump will keep the U.S. in historic Paris Agreement on climate change, China has stepped up efforts to address the problem. Among those efforts has been shuttering coal-fired power plants or upgrading coal-burning technology, in order to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. The Global Times recently looked into several coal projects in Beijing's eastern suburbs, where villagers have been dependent for years on coal-fired furnaces to heat their homes during the winter. In 2015, however, they have entered a new era of electricity usage. Meanwhile, some Chinese companies are trying to make better use of coal.
Zhang Wanzong has not had to get up early this winter to fill his outdoor furnace with coal to heat his house.
Zhang is a resident of Cuijialou -village in Tongzhou district, in -Beijing's eastern suburbs,
With the assistance of the Beijing municipal government and State-owned electric utility State Grid Corp, Zhang has had electric heat in his house since October.
"Chairman Mao fought to give us land, and President Xi brought us warmth," the 86-year-old villager sincerely told the Global Times on Friday.
A project called "coal-to-electricity," launched in urban Beijing in 2003, expanded into the suburbs in 2015, especially in places allegedly held responsible for the city's hazardous air pollution. Many heavily polluting industries have been moved out of the city, and several major coal-fired power plants in Beijing have been shut down in recent years.
In 2013, the city set a goal to slash coal consumption to less than 10 million tons a year by 2017, according to the Five-Year Clean Air Action Plan (2013-17) that the Beijing municipal government unveiled in September 2013.
Measures to achieve the goal include shutting down thermal power stations, promoting clean energy, abandoning the use of coal in the city's urban areas and limiting the use of coal in outer suburbs.
The "coal-to-electricity" project had helped about 46,000 households in Tongzhou district since 2016.
The municipal government has granted them subsidies to purchase heating equipment and pay their electricity bills, said Gao Jie, the State Grid employee in charge of the project in Tongzhou.
"For example, when a household purchases air-source heat pump, they can receive a subsidy of up to 24,000 yuan ($3,470), and they also get a discount on their electricity bills," Gao told the Global Times on Friday.
Farewell to coal
Zhang used to purchase about three tons of coal in the Cuijialou -village every year just to heat his home, he said. The coal ended up in a pile outside his front door.
"Sometimes, it stained my coat, and it made a mess when the pile collapsed, which was difficult to clean up," he said, noting that it would sometimes still get cold in the early hours when the fuel didn't last through the night.
The most important issue was the air pollution, which grew worse and worse during the winter, when every family in the village was running their own coal-fired furnace.
"It has gotten much cleaner now," Zhang said.
During the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period, the State Grid is expected to invest tens of billions of yuan in revamping the electric grid, according to a document the company sent to the Global Times on Friday.
The investment covers an expansion of the "coal-to-electricity" project to 674,000 households.
One of the project's goals is to cut the amount of coal used in Beijing by 3.2 million tons, which will cut carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 8.3 million tons and sulfur dioxide by an estimated 27,000 tons, the document stated.
"Also, after all the young people left the village to work elsewhere, it was not easy for us elderly people to fill the furnace every morning," Zhang noted.
Replacing coal-burning furnaces with electric heating systems, such as heat pumps, is an important solution for reducing the use of coal as well as the air pollution it causes, but it is not the only solution, said Zhao Lijian, director of the China Environmental Management Program at Energy Foundation China.
"Other solutions include replacing coal with natural gas, or providing heating by using industrial waste heat, or switching to a heating system that -utilize multiple energy sources that are complimentary to each other," Zhao told the Global Times on Sunday.
Challenges remain to carrying out the "coal-to-electricity" project as the cost is relatively high for some local governments in other provinces, Zhao noted.
"Beijing is much more developed than some regions in northern China, which are likely to face financial difficulties when they need to grant local residents additional subsidies to encourage them to use clean energy, which costs more than using coal," he said.
China consumed about 4 billion tons of coal in 2015, about half of all of the coal consumed in the world, Wang Xianzheng, head of China National Coal Association, was quoted as saying in Beijing-based news portal bbtnews.com in May.
The electricity sector consumed about 1.9 billion tons of coal, accounting for about half of the country's consumption, according to the report by bbtnews.com.
During the winter, coal-burning heating plants get blamed for the smog, especially in northern China, said Chen Shuimiao, who is in charge of a new coal-fired electricity plant in Daqing, Northeast China's -Heilongjiang Province.
Chen's plant is operated by the -Beijing-based energy company -Shenwu Environmental Technology Co.
Coal should not become a target in the fight against air pollution, rather everyone needs to think about how to use it in a better way, Chen claimed.
"Through a new coal processing technology, we'll be able to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by an estimated 15 percent and 7 percent, respectively," Chen told the Global Times on Thursday.
If the technology gets widely adopted one day, the country would cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 1 billion tons and of sulfur dioxide by 9 million tons, he said.
However, even applying the best available technology won't help North China's Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province meet their 2020 air quality targets, according to a report jointly released in March by the National Development and Reform Commission's Energy Research Institute, Tsinghua University's School of the Environment and the integrated clean air collaboration platform the China Clean Air Alliance.
The 13th Five-Year Plan, which was published on March 17, has for the first time included a specific target to cut PM 2.5 levels by 25 percent.
"Technologies such as dust-removal, de-sulfurization and de-nitrification are not enough," Energy Foundation China's Zhao said. "A lot more effort needs to be put into energy restructuring to lower the percentage of coal consumption in [the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area] from 70 percent to 30 percent by 2030."