In China, residents shiver as government shutters power plants to save energy

Nevermind the frigid temperatures, residents in China are told. The effort to build cleaner power plants is for the greater good, so interim shivering is just part of the deal.

David Gray/Reuters/File
A man rides his bicycle past the chimneys of a power station located on the outskirts of Beijing on Oct. 29, 2009.

It’s a lot easier to run a city when you don’t have to worry about being re-elected.

That’s what the mayor of Linzhou, a small, nondescript city in the central province of Henan has found. As temperatures plunge below zero, he has turned Linzhou’s residential heating system off so as to obey a diktat from Beijing. All that the city’s million or so citizens can do is shiver or go out and buy electric space heaters, and ponder the particular way in which this country is governed.

It’s all for a good cause, claims Liang Dawei, head of the local Communist party committee’s propaganda department. The power plant that has always provided steam to the local heating company “has been shut down for energy saving purposes,” he explains.

Last year, the central government in Beijing ordered the closure of hundreds of small, inefficient coal-fired power stations across the country in a bid to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Linzhou’s was among them.

The local government is building a more modern and energy-efficient plant, says Mr. Liang, but it is not yet functional. “I cannot say when it will start to operate,” he acknowledges.

Space heaters vs. below-freezing temperatures

In the meantime, Linzhou’s citizens make do as best they can.

“I use an electric heater at home,” says Ms. Wen, a local resident contacted by telephone. “The electricity is expensive, but I haven’t worked out how much this will cost me. The government has not said when there will be heat again.”

The fact that this is the coldest time of the year in Linzhou, with temperatures hovering around -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), does not appear to concern the city fathers unduly. An order came from above, and regardless of its effect on ordinary people, it must be carried out.

Shutting down the power plant was “a task that had to be accomplished and should not be delayed because of the heating supply,” a reporter from the Beijing News said he was told by a local official.

Linzhou’s officials can report a task accomplished to their superiors, but it is unclear whether their action has in fact reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. With everyone using electric heaters or turning their air conditioners to “warm,” the city’s electricity consumption has gone up.

And where does its electricity come from? Coal-fired power stations elsewhere on the national grid, all of them emitting away even more than ever.

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