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2018-03-08 22:24:16

Despite last year’s haphazard ban on coal-powered heating leaving many families in the cold, China’s push for clean air persists — and the northern province of Hebei now plans to equip entire villages with solar-powered heating.

By mid-March, every municipal government in the province should select at least one village under its administration to join the pilot project, according to a recent notice from the Hebei Department of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

Many households in rural northern China heat their homes with small but smoky coal-fired stoves. The government had been phasing these out, but said in February that it would not convert any more villages from coal- to gas-powered heating in 2018.

Last year, the majority of Hebei’s counties were included in a Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) air pollution reduction plan that banned the use of coal in favor of gas and electricity. The campaign significantly reduced smog, but it also led to gas shortages and price surges. In some parts of Hebei, unfinished pipelines left people without heating during the frigid winter, forcing officials to admit that the project had been rushed. The ban was partially reversed in December.

Gas shortages have pushed the central government to promote solar and other types of renewable energy, according to Wang Gaofeng, deputy editor-in-chief at Energy, a magazine that falls under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), a powerful government organ.

Last December, 10 government bodies, including the MEP and the NDRC, released a joint plan to use clean energy for heating in northern China. The plan criticized the coal ban for its negative consequences, and set a target of 2019 for the year by which half of northern China should use natural gas, solar power, or other clean energies for heating. In January, the NDRC also called for developing shallow geothermal energy, which can warm buildings using heat from within the earth.

According to the Hebei government notice, construction on the solar energy projects in the pilot villages should be finished before September, in time for winter. Villages with primary schools, kindergartens, hospitals, or nursing homes should get priority. Systems that convert solar energy into heat directly, or first into electricity, can be used, and backup systems that use gas or geothermal energy should also be installed, the notice said.

China’s solar market has grown rapidly in recent years thanks in part to favorable policies. In 2017, China had 53 gigawatts of installed solar power, or over half of the worldwide total. Despite the boom, using solar energy for heating is still relatively rare.

Wang, the editor, praised Hebei for pioneering the use of solar in heating homes but warned that it might be too costly to make economic sense. The Hebei government said it would offer similar subsidies as those under the coal-to-gas project. But there, officials misjudged the forces of supply and demand, Wang said, as “gas consumption during peak season in winter is five times larger than that in summer.” As a result, many rural residents opted to stay unheated because gas proved too costly.

“It’s worth seeing whether the government will offer enough financial assistance,” Wang said. “Compared with coal, solar-powered heating could be much more expensive.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A technician from Yingli Solar checks a panel used to store energy for lighting on the roof of the company’s headquarters in Baoding, Hebei province, Dec. 4, 2014. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/VCG)