Liu Jinming had a tough time handling the high-tech equipment and coping with the complex information on the computer screens in front of him.
Liu, 50, has been working at the coal-fired heating plant in Beijing for 27 years. After facing the basic buttons and instrument panels of the plant‘s former operations room in the past few decades, he found himself having to study and retrain with younger colleagues to get up to speed with the latest technology.
“It took me more than a year to learn how to read the parameters on the computer screens and control the complex system through them,” said Liu, sitting in the plant’s new core operations hall.
As Liu familiarized himself with the new equipment, he also had to get used to changes in his duties ―from experienced technician to beginner in the energy sector, where colleagues in their 30s now played the central role.
Liu’s experience reflected the challenges from the generational and mindset shift amid green upgrades at the Datang International Beijing Gaojing Thermal Power Plant, in the capital’s Shijingshan district.
The plant has more than 1,200 workers at an average age of 45 and many of them are also couples with families, said He Zhiyong, Party chief of the plant.
“More than 1,000 of them have been made redundant because the new facilities and operations require just a few workers to manage,” He said.
The plant had to redeploy the workers from the front-line of production to other departments such as maintenance and cleaning, which were previously outsourced to other companies, he said.
“Many of them have had to accept lower salaries because of the changes in their positions,” He said.
“We’re making plans to keep them occupied and paid appropriately, but it’s not easy.”
Liu Jinming’s wife has also worked at the plant for two decades and shifted to the office with a reduced wage.
“We all accept the changes as long as they improve the environment,” Liu said.
The Datang International Beijing Gaojing Thermal Power Plant, built in 1959, took the technological lead to improve its thermal power generation and waste management, and has since become a national model of environmental protection.
Faced with serious air pollution in recent years, the coal-fired plant was required to push ahead in its use of natural gas to generate power and supply heat for households from November.
A worker examines equipment in a gas-fired plant in Beijing. Traditional coal-fired plants are switching to natural gas to generate power and supply heat for households from November in the capital. (Xuan Jun/China Daily)
“It’s important to cut coal consumption by replacing it with cleaner energy sources like natural gas and solar power,” said Liu Wei, director in charge of air quality control at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Environmental Protection.
Coal-fired power plants have been identified as a main target of the move, Liu said.
Coal consumption has become a major source of particulate pollution, known as PM 2.5, in Beijing since 2013, generating 22.4 percent of the emission. 95 percent of sulfur dioxide discharged into the air was also from coal consumption, the municipal commission said.
In 2012, Beijing burned 23 million tons of coal, 40 percent of which were used by power plants and 24 percent for winter heating. The capital has promised to cut its coal consumption to 10 million tons by 2017 to control the major polluting source.
To help make up for the resulting shortfall in power generation, authorities will launch four natural gas-fueled thermoelectric centers by 2015.
Among the planned thermoelectric centers, Gaojing Thermal Power Plant, also called the northwestern thermoelectric center, was the largest one that came into service in 2014. It will provide heating for 400,000 households in the western areas of the capital in the coming winter.
“The new facilities can increase power generation capacity and serve larger areas. More importantly, they will emit nearly zero pollutants into the air,” said Gao Xinyu from the municipal reform and development bureau.
Adopting the use of natural gas with the upgraded facilities is good for long-term development, but the move has not come cheap.
The coal-fired facilities are still in good condition, but abandoning them will leave about 1 billion yuan ($163 million) of investment idle, plant Party chief He said.
An extra 5 billion yuan has been pumped into the plant’s new facilities, and government subsidies will be needed to help plug the higher costs of using natural gas, he said.
All coal-firing units in the four thermoelectric centers will be shut by 2017.
More companies will also utilize similar facilities to consume natural gas. It has been estimated that demand for natural gas in Beijing will grow from the current 10 billion cubic meters to 18 billion cubic meters by 2017.
The municipal government will guarantee the supply of natural gas and provide more subsidies to promote environmentally friendly facilities in power generation and industrial production, said Gao from the municipal reform and development bureau.
Beijing’s latest moves to reduce emissions have also motivated neighboring province Hebei and municipality Tianjin to upgrade and green their power generation facilities.
The four coal-fired power generation units of Chentang Power Plant in Tianjin will be closed by the end of 2015 and adopt eco-friendly units fueled by natural gas.
The power plant in Hebei’s provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, has similarly invested about 500 million yuan since 2013 to introduce advanced technology in power generation and heating, which is expected to help cut emissions of sulfur dioxide by 2,300 tons and nitrogen oxides by 4,400 tons annually.
“There will be nearly no such emissions,” said Di Xiangdong, deputy head of production bureau of the Yuhua Generation Power Co Ltd.
The moves will increase daily operating costs by 65 yuan and reduce net profits from power generation by 100 million yuan a year, he said.
Improvements from the green measures are already noticeable in the power plants. During interviews at the Beijing and Shijiazhuang facilities, there was no marked difference indoors or outdoors with the absence of dust or noxious smells.
Hebei, a province that has witnessed severe air pollution in the past two years, has taken tough measures to curb emissions, including reining in coal consumption as well as shutting steel and iron companies and other polluting industries.
The province with heavy industries as its major economic engine saw economic growth slowing down in the first half of 2014, down to 5.2 percent, the second slowest in the country.
But provincial leaders have repeatedly highlighted their determination to curb air pollution, regardless of the economic impact.
“We will forbid any projects that emit air pollutants and promote tough measures to improve air quality, no matter what price we pay,” said Zhou Benshun, Hebei’s Party chief.
By Zheng Jinran