The Heat is On



BEIJING - Today I spent about an hour recharging the natural gas card, asking street cleaners, parking lot attendants and traffic wardens where the closest Bank of Beijing is. Most of my apartment-mates have gone home for the Chinese New Year and I took it upon myself to figure out how to get the stove, hot water and heat working again.


Yesterday I found the gas card, the first step, next I needed to figure out how to charge it, and then stick it in the meter in the kitchen that read 00:00. I also found the electricity card, and I went to go check the electricity meter in the outside hallway. With 100+ units I figured I should be able to keep the lights on for at least a week.


When I rented my own place last year I went through 2-3 units a day. In my old place electricity, cold water and hot water were all pre-paid through the card system. Cold and hot water could be bought in the basement and electricity had to be bought at the local ICBC Bank, now the world's largest bank. Often I had my neighbour charge the electricity, but in an effort to keep the lights on and shed my "little emperor" reputation I did it myself one weekend when my neighbour was out of town, using the help of a few blogs and a few words of Chinese.


One of my current flatmates said I might be able to go to ICBC for natural gas as well. I liked this as I now have an account with them. Unfortunately that wasn't the case and I was off to ask directions. I bought 30 cubic meters for about 60 Renminbi or 9 USD. Based on last week's usage with three people, that's about $1.50 a day to keep the stove on, hot water running and the radiator at minimum heat.


In the kitchen there is a box that heats the water and sends it through the pipes and the radiator, and sends exhaust (CO2?) out the window. In the US I was used to paying after the fact for utilities like electricity which was sometime s horribly over-estimated because the landlord didn't let the ConEd staffer in to read the meter.


In China, I got into a habit of writing down the meter reading every night before I went to bed. I also would think twice about watching the TV or using the microwave on full power. I was reminded of the movie Apollo 13 where they have to figure out the proper sequence of powering on devices to re-enter the Earth's orbit without running out of electricity.


Last fall I was living in a school provided dorm where I didn't have to worry about the hot water, heat or electricity. But I still found myself, at least initially, calculating electricity usage in my head whenever I plugged in a device. A Department of Energy study in a year- long survey found that consumers reduced their usage by 10% and 15% during peak times when they had greater knowledge about their consumption.


Not having heat when the temperature gets up to freezing and only goes down from there got my attention, and got me back into reading the meters. Yet, even though I have at least two layers on inside, there is now part of me that wants to limit heat to save money. Saving money was a factor for those in the Department of Energy study and clearly is a factor in the drop in plastic bags here in China after the 2008 policy that "banned" plastic bags, requiring grocery stores to charge for every bag. I have seen in my own life here in China the significance of knowing cost up front and it would be interesting to see smart grid projects in the United States scaled up.



China, Natural Gas, United States