Getting energy use under control in China

Hard winters in northern China in 1993 and 1994, in which a number of people froze to death due to a lack of heating, sparked a new demand for metering in China, not only for heating but for all utility services including electricity, water and gas.

Heat supply has historically been a public welfare issue in China, where the employee’s company would cover the heating expenses for their family. The ‘heating price’ was pre-set, based on the square metre area of the employee’s residence, and heating stations for district heating would earn revenue and cover their costs according to these allowances. However, in times of high demand, such as in 1993 and 1994, an imbalance between supply and demand frequently resulted.

Throughout the 1990s there was a clear development towards citizens taking control of and responsibility for their individual energy and water usage, through the implementation of systems and metering to measure and bill for consumption at each residence.

In 1995 a Housing Reform initiative was launched with an Affordable Housing programme, under which millions of square metres of new housing were built. With this came the creation of public services in more than 70 cities all over China, with the aim of improving the living standards of ordinary people and the growing middle class. Citizens in these new apartments began to pay for their accommodation directly and also became responsible for their individual energy and water use. The aim is a 50% reduction in the energy consumed for heating by the year 2010.

Despite the installation of these systems, the majority of people continue to be dependant on employers for the bulk payment of utility services on a district basis.

The first metering systems for energy monitoring were established in Tianjin, a city of more than 10 million inhabitants some 100 km south of Beijing. There the district heating supply has expanded from approximately 6% in 1994 to 62% in 2001. The process of introducing the systems proved complex, involving engineers and economists from Tianjin University and several departments within the Municipality. The first metering devices were installed in 1997 and the first heating bills were paid directly by residents in 1999.

These developments are continuing and in June 2001 Tianjin Municipality issued legislation stating that all district heating systems in newly-built housing must have individual heat measuring devices.

National legislation is in preparation to improve the living standards of citizens and also to give families the possibility to control their heat consumption and pay only for the heat they consume. There are, however, many issues to be resolved before user paid heat consumption can be introduced nationwide in China, and the introduction needs also to be socially balanced.