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Coal consumption and district heating in China

Posted by Asiful Hai on June 02, 2015

In 2014, coal accounted for 64% of China’s total energy consumption[i]. The country is responsible for burning half the world’s coal and for over half of the total CO2 growth globally in the past 10 years[ii]. As a result of years of dependency on coal, China suffers from a staggering level of air pollution. In fact, a recent study linked air pollution to 1.2 million premature deaths in the country[iii].

Most of the pollutants in the air are caused by burning coal in outdated power plants but a significant amount is also from people in rural areas using coal for heating and cooking[iv]. It is estimated that 86 per cent of the coal burned in households is done with limited pollution controlling measures such as chimneys or exhaust pipes and on the few homes that do have them, they are poorly maintained[v].

Motivated by the health risks and the economic costs associated with them[vi], China is making an effort to break their coal dependency. In 2014, for the first time this century, the country’s coal consumption fell[vii]. This is largely a result of investing in more renewable energy technologies — China is now the world’s largest exporter of solar energy and produced a total of 240 GW of hydropower as of 2012 — but unfortunately, the country is continuing to rely on coal as an inexpensive means of keeping up with their growing energy requirements[viii].

China needs a less harmful, inexpensive method of providing rural households with energy. One option to explore might be district heating, which has been widely adopted by many cities in Europe as a cheap source of energy. This method works by transporting heat from a centralized production plant to different customers through underground pipes.

The advantage of district heating systems is that they have lower labor and maintenance costs, as well as more efficient management of supply and demand of the energy, when compared to individual stand-alone systems. But most importantly, many different fuels can be used to produce the heat that is being distributed, including waste heat from an existing power cycle. The biggest disadvantage of this system however, is the initial cost of implementing it because a large amount of construction is required to install the series of pipes to and from customer locations.

District heating could provide cheap heating for many people in China, whether they are rural or urban customers in residential, commercial or industrial dwellings. However, the hurdle of the high initial investment required needs to be addressed by the government for such a system to be adopted, especially if China is serious about taking the necessary steps to move away from their reliance on coal.

Filed under: Students on Sustainability