A greener city, house by house

China's oldest environmental NGO is on a mission to bring low-carbon renovations to Beijing homes. Zhou Wei met the campaign’s first wave: 21 families tasked with cutting their energy use by a third.

As we pulled up outside an old block of flats, Friends of Nature project officer Chen Wanning pointed to a window on the third floor. “That’s one of the families participating in the low-carbon households project,” she said. Looking up, I knew immediately which one she meant: a metal rack laden with plants was visible in front of new, double-glazed panes. The window stood out from its old, rusty neighbours.

This summer, 21 Beijing families took part in a programme run by Chinese NGO Friends of Nature to promote low-carbon and low-energy living, one they hope will be the first of many. The organisation gave a grant of up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) to each family to fund low-carbon home refurbishments, as well as providing them with electricity meters. The families were asked to measure power use before and after the changes, and the goal was a 30% reduction in energy use. The refurbishments are now drawing to a close, and the Friends of Nature project team has been inspecting the properties.

Most of the families taking part in the project live in old-fashioned residential blocks. Often the walls and windows in these buildings are poorly insulated, meaning the apartments get hot in summer and cold in winter, and residents rely on energy-hungry heating and air-conditioning systems. So double-glazing, which insulates and blocks out noise, was the top priority for the 21 households.

Wang Xinxuan, a geography teacher, lives in an old Beijing high-rise on a busy road, in an apartment with many windows. Originally, there was only a single pane of glass in an iron frame, so the apartment was always freezing in winter. And, even if all the windows were closed, people inside could still clearly hear the traffic noise.

So Wang and several other householders made a bulk online purchase of high-quality, double-glazed windows. They cost two or three times as much as ordinary windows, but Wang is happy with them. She showed us how they allow ventilation and block out sound. “It’s worth the money – we’re warm in winter now,” she said. “I’m not planning to use the air-conditioning next year; the windows let air in, and hopefully they’ll keep the heat out, too.”

Friends of Nature’s deputy director, Zhang Hehe, said the most impressive insulation improvements were at the Kong household in Shunyi district, east of the city. Kong Qinghai lives in a single-storey brick house and uses a coal stove for heating in the winter. Conditions are basic. After joining the project, he renovated his home to his own design, improving both insulation and ventilation.

When they were selecting their “low carbon families”, the project team hesitated over including this kind of household, but in the end accepted two like Kong’s. When work started, Friends of Nature was delighted to find that these families were more easily able to measure the impact of the changes than others, as they burn coal for heat and know exactly how much they are using. “Saving energy while improving quality of life” – that’s the aim of the project, said Zhang.

Wang Xinxuan’s radiators are hidden behind wooden slatted panelling. Ten or 20 years ago, this was a fashionable way to fit out a home. It was thought to look cleaner and more elegant, but it trapped the hot air, wasting heat. Zhang calls this a “beautiful mistake”, and it is next on the list of things Wang plans to change: she wants to remove the panels and swap the old radiators for new models. “I learnt a lot about low-carbon design and energy-saving appliances on the low-carbon course,” Wang said.

Before remodelling their homes, the families went through two months of training activities – the “low-carbon course” Wang refers to – which included activities like attending lectures and visiting exhibitions on energy-saving and efficient water use. Friends of Nature also arranged for energy-saving experts to make specific suggestions for each family. For example, Wang Xinghua, a music teacher, was advised to remove a wooden partition in her lounge, which improved lighting and ventilation and reduced the amount of time her family needs to keep the lights on. She also hung a hemp curtain in the bedroom to block out the afternoon sun and cut air-conditioner use.

The project team set up an online forum, where participants could chat about products and refurbishment techniques. “Everyone in the group shared information and experiences, and helped each other out,” said team member Jing Meng.

Wang Xinghua’s flat is on the top-floor of a residential block. As the roof is a very poor insulator, her home gets oppressively hot in summer. The obvious solution – a suspended ceiling (a second layer hung below the main ceiling) – would provide insulation, but also make the rooms feel smaller and more cramped. Wang and her husband looked at the building supplies available on the market and found a wall coating made from natural fibres, said to block out noise and provide insulation with a single layer.

As it was a plant-based product, she decided to try it. “We used this bedroom as a trial, and let everyone come to see it,” Wang’s husband, Liu Deli, said. The pink coating on the ceiling of the bedroom looks good, and feels like plastic. Zhang said she is planning try it out herself.

Wang Xinghua said her family had also considered installing a solar water heater on the roof or an external wall to use the sun’s energy to heat water and cut down on electricity consumption. But the building management refused permission due to safety concerns and she had to abandon the idea. Solar water heaters are great for saving power, Zhang said, but sales in large cities like Beijing are low. The appliances are hard to install, and building managers often refuse to allow them on safety grounds. This makes it difficult to sell the heaters on any scale in the cities, and many who would like to use them simply give up.

Another programme participant, Duan Yundong, has successfully installed a solar water heater, however. He chose a model that can be placed on the walls of an ordinary balcony. “Sunlight-to-heat conversion is the most mature solar technology, and there are clear energy savings,” he explained. After attending a Friends of Nature community event, Duan – whose family was chosen the neighbourhood’s “green family of the year” in 2007, thanks to his water-saving efforts – started using a meter to measure his household’s power consumption. Finding its appliances were eating up a lot of electricity, he decided to make changes. 

According to the National Reform and Development Commission – China’s top economic planner – the average Chinese family uses 87 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity a month. But there are wild variations across regions and between households. One recent survey indicated that most urban families use between 110 and 140 kWh a month, while the rural average is 60. Other reports show there is huge potential for domestic energy saving. If an average family adopted energy-saving appliances, for example, it could save 1,000 kWh of electricity use per year, as well as 42.6 tonnes of water. Most energy is used in the bathroom and the kitchen, and air-conditioning, refrigerators, washing machines and televisions are all big power-users.

Zhang hopes that the 21 households that took part this year will act as leaders in future neighbourhood schemes. The government is also experimenting with residential low-carbon and energy-saving schemes, for example using insulating materials in new buildings and carrying out “earthquake-resistant and energy-saving refurbishments” on old buildings.

At the Yuegezhuang shopping area in western Beijing, there used to be a specific market for energy-saving and low-carbon products. It was one of the places visited by the 21 families during their low-carbon course. Founded by the Beijing Energy-Saving Environmental Protection Centre and subsidised by the government, the market displayed and sold a range of energy-saving and environmentally friendly products. But its remote location and a lack of consumer demand meant the stalls struggled, and the market closed early this year.

Despite generous government subsidies for businesses in energy-saving and green-technology sectors, Zhang explained, the investment does not necessarily filter down to the public. “There’s actually a lack of money directed at encouraging low-carbon choices among ordinary people,” she said.

Zhou Wei is assistant editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from FON