Old Version

Cold Comfort

The onset of winter brings the annual call for southern regions of China to be provided with central heating as residents endure chilly conditions. But many question whether it is feasible and cost-effective

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

Sarah Tian, a college teacher working in Beijing, has decided not to return to her hometown in Central China’s Hunan Province for this Spring Festival, which falls on January 25 in 2020. Having lived in Beijing for 10 years, she has become accustomed to her centrally heated apartment, finding the winter temperatures in her damp, cold hometown increasingly unbearable.  

In the Chinese mainland, government-provided central heating – for which households have to pay a flat fee according to the size of the dwelling – is only provided for residents of Northern China. The dates for the big switch on and off are decided by geography – the colder the climate, the longer the heating season. For example, in Beijing, residents generally have central heating from November 15 to March 15. Whether you live in the north or south is demarcated by a line along the Qinling Mountains and Huai River, long used as a geographical divide between the cold, dry north and the warmer, wetter south.  

Tian’s hometown, south of the invisible line, is not eligible for central heating. As residents of northern cities rejoice when the centrally controlled system is switched on, southerners grumble online about the damp chilly conditions they endure. If they want heat, they have to use expensive air-conditioners or electric heaters. Every year, there is debate about the lack of central heating in the south.  

Research findings from the Building Energy Conservation Research Center (BECRC) at Tsinghua University that were widely circulated since 2015 already shows that not all southern cities need heating except those with a “cold winter and hot summer,” including Shanghai, Chongqing and provinces such as Hubei, Hunan, Anhui and Zhejiang. Such places see low temperatures and high humidity in winter, so without heating it is far colder inside than in northern cities. In the winter of 2012 when southern areas were hit by persistent rain and snow, for example, the average indoor temperature without heating equipment in cities including Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Changsha and Chongqing was 7 C, much lower than the standard 15 C in centrally heated northern cities. But since none of the buildings were constructed with a central heating system in place, providing heat is a problem.  

In 2000, some southern cities, particularly provincial capitals, started to explore whether they could provide centrally heated housing. But the process has been slow, and few buildings have central heating still.  

While local officials in the south are calling for better policies to help more households access central heating, many experts do not regard it as cost-effective for the south to copy the north, given the differences in climate, environment and energy provisions. They suggest the region should adopt more diverse and flexible means to cope with winter cold.  

Heated Debate
China’s centralized heating system started in the 1950s. It was an imitation of that in the former Soviet Union, who provided assistance at first. The first cities to get heating systems included Beijing, Harbin, Xi’an and Changchun, where the lowest temperatures range from -30 to -10 C. The Qinling-Huai River line was set then as a demarcation and the colder north was given priority, due to energy shortages as China struggled to develop.  

By the 1980s, the heating system began to expand rapidly. Between 1980 and 1988, the annual expansion in heat-supply area in Beijing reached 900,000 cubic meters on average, a sharp rise from 130,000 cubic meters in the 1960s. The system continues to expand in northern regions as an indicator of people’s livelihood.  

But in the south, old methods such as coal stoves and hot-water bottles are still used in some rural areas. In urban areas, most use a mix of electric blankets, space heaters and air conditioners.  

Questions have been raised over the rationality of the dividing line.  

The controversy reached a climax in 2012 when Zhang Xiaomei, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, proposed that southern regions along the Yangtze River, which contributed two-fifths of the country’s GDP, also deserve central heating and the government should invest in heating facilities. Zhang posted her proposal on Sina Weibo, which sparked fierce discussion. Many said that as the country’s economy had greatly improved, it was time to put the heating needs of southerners on the agenda.  

At the end of 2012 and in early 2013 when China experienced a particularly cold winter, the temperatures in southern regions were almost 2 C lower than usual. In Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang which is close to Shanghai, the lowest temperature was -6 C. Media joined in the debate. Party newspaper People’s Daily launched a survey on Weibo, with 83 percent of the 20,000 participants supporting supplying centralized heating in the south.  

The debate aroused attention from the authorities. The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning body, set up a research group to address the concerns. The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MHURD) also responded, saying that when outdoor temperatures are below 5 C in parts of the south, they should have heating facilities. But MHURD pointed out that if China provided all southern urban areas which experience cold winters, covering about 3.4 billion square meters in 2013, with central heating like the north, every year it would need to burn an additional 26 million tons of coal. This translates to 73 million tons of carbon dioxide, 52,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 12,000 tons of dust, which would aggravate air pollution. The MHURD suggested the south adopt decentralized heating, which could be argued it is already using, according to local weather conditions, energy situations, environmental policies and the residents’ living habits.  

In the years since, and despite the annual discussion, the south still does not have central heating. Aside from the challenges at the operational level, the matter becomes 
increasingly complicated as the country grows more aware of energy consumption and environmental protection.  

Students at Zhengzhou University in Henan Province cluster near radiators as they study in January 2018

Hard Exploration 
Some cities have tried. Hefei, capital of Anhui Province, located between the Huai and Yangtze rivers, is typical in this regard. The lowest temperature in the city could reach -9 C in the coldest winter in the 21st century. Based on its exploration of central heating in the early 1990s, the local government released regulations about the management of small boilers and heating companies in 2002, stressing a unified plan and management of heat supply. By 2007, different companies were combined into one, Hefei Thermal Power, to create one supplier. By the end of 2018, the central heating system in Hefei serves 115,000 households, covering 25 million square meters.  

Jiangsu Province, which neighbors Anhui and is also divided by the Huai River, implemented energy saving regulations in 2000, stressing that local governments above county level should make heating plans and encouraged centralized heating and cooling. Now more cities in Jiangsu are taking action.  

Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, started its “warm winter and cool summer” project in 2005 using steam generated by its thermal power plants. Before that, the city’s power grids reportedly crashed as residents relied heavily on electric heaters and air-conditioners in the cold winters and hot, humid summers. The average temperature in Wuhan ranges from 0-8 C in January, its coldest month.  

These projects proceeded slowly. Wuhan’s central heating project, after six years, supplied only 14 newly built neighborhoods and four work units, according to a survey by Chutian Metropolis Daily in 2011. It serviced in total 20,000 people then, short of its goal of 600,000 by 2015. Hefei, which has the biggest central heating system in the south, only covers 11 percent of local households. More than 70 percent use air-conditioners. 
A major challenge is retrofitting older buildings, which is complicated and costly. Many Wuhan residents who hoped to benefit from the project, for example, changed their mind after learning that the retrofit would cost households 200 yuan (US$29) per square meter.  

Gao Yongjun, vice general manager of Hefei Thermal Power, told NewsChina that building networks and retrofitting old urban districts and apartments are more difficult. Like other southern cities, Hefei focuses on installing central heating in new neighborhoods and commercial buildings, supplemented by updating existing heating facilities in old neighborhoods. 

Another obstacle is the lack of policies and incentives that are available to their northern counterparts. Gao said that northern cities can access financial support from the government in transforming aging pipes. But in the south, heating suppliers have to shoulder the entire cost themselves.  

In 2016, the State Taxation Administration and the Ministry of Finance issued a notice exempting heating supply companies in northern cities from value added tax on heating fees, property taxes and land-use fees. Heating supply companies in the south do not enjoy such policies and are thus under more financial pressure. 

Wang Lei, an official from the Hefei Urban and Rural Construction Bureau, said that heating is not as indispensable as water and gas supply in the south, so it develops slowly. “Without heating, people may freeze to death in the north, which will not happen in the south,” Wang said. He believes that to expand the central heating area in the region, State-level policies must be changed.  

Meanwhile, many people are not overexcited about the active efforts in southern cities. A scholar specializing in energy conservation told NewsChina that while the south no doubt needs heating, as the MHURD once pointed out, the heating period the south needs (about one month) is shorter than the north (four to five months), so it is not cost-effective to lay heating pipes.  

Coal is scarce in South China, which will drive the cost of heating higher. Under these circumstances, the scholar said that the government should leave the choice to enterprises, customers and the market without much interference. 

Many experts interviewed by the State-run Xinhua News Agency in November said that it is not suitable for the south to copy the north as the utilization rate of central heating facilities is low there.  

Xinhua randomly interviewed two neighborhoods in Hefei that had a central heating system for about 10 years, and found about 30 percent of the homeowners did not turn it on. Among the refuseniks, some use air conditioners which they believe are cheaper and easier to control. Some thought the shared cost for central heating was too high. 

Jiang Yi, director of the BECRC at Tsinghua University, said that the difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures is not as obvious in the south and that as household heating demands vary, so he does not believe central heating is suitable. “There are obvious regional differences in the south. The heating solutions should be tailored to local conditions, and be more scientific, rational and flexible,” Xie Yingxia, former vice director of China Academy of Urban Planning & Design, told Xinhua.