When we asked old Mr. Qin what he thought of his former coal-fired heater, he put down his steel cup of steaming soup and growled, "Mafan!" A real pain. But Mr. Qin was much more positive about the new electric heater the government had installed in his small one-room den in a dense hutong a fifteen-minute walk from the drum tower. Mr. Qin's new heater came as a part of a local government bid to switch to clean heating energy and eliminate the use of coal within the third ring road. Until recently, most residents living in hutongs used coal heaters that were not only troublesome, but heavy polluters. The old heaters could fill the insides of houses with ash and the air outside with smoke. If owners were not careful, coal heaters could also leak carbon monoxide, a threat that has sickened and killed a number of hutong dwellers.
The benefits of switching to electric heaters are obvious: they are safer, cleaner, environmentally friendly and more convenient. The only problem is that electric heaters are expensive and the electricity needed to run them is more expensive than coal. To solve this problem, the government is providing heaters at reduced or no cost to home owners. Because old Mr. Qin has long since retired and has little income, his heater came for free. Now the number of residents using coal is falling rapidly as the initiative, started back in 1999, reaches more and more households. The Gulou and Nanluo Guxiang areas have been almost entirely retrofitted with electric heaters, but outlying neighborhoods from Xuanwu to Shunyi still await the upgrade. Still, Beijing’s air is already cleaner.
As we left Mr. Qin's house on a brisk autumn day before Beijing's brutal four-month-long heating season, we asked him perhaps the most important question: was his new electric heater warm enough? "Hot enough, hot enough," Mr. Qin said with a nod.