China oil giant digs deep to bring clean energy to homes

BAODING (Hebei) • Chinese state- run energy giant Sinopec has drilled hundreds of wells across the country without finding a single drop of oil. But that was precisely the point: Instead of black gold, the deep holes are providing clean heat for local homes.

While two-thirds of China's electricity are generated by coal, almost all of the homes in northern Hebei province's Xiong district - home to 400,000 people - are heated by wells as deep as 1.6km.

In a new apartment in the district, a 60-year-old retiree watched his granddaughters hop about in bare feet, impervious to the frost outside.

"This floor heating works like a dream," said Mr Li Fuzeng. "And they say it's clean energy."

The temperature inside his home was 28 deg C and a citrus tree in the corner showed no signs of winter.

Mr Chen Menghui, director of Sinopec's geothermal branch in Hebei, said the process depends on a cycle of running water.

"These underground wells are pumped with water, which comes out at a temperature of around 70 deg C before flowing into the heating system," he said.

Though experts say there is immense potential in China's subterranean heat reserves, they remain largely unexploited, accounting for less than 0.5 per cent of the Asian giant's energy consumption.

Sinopec's geothermal projects comprise more than 40 per cent of the total number of homes heated by geothermal energy across the country, making them a potential model for how it can tap this resource.

In a joint venture beginning in 2009, Sinopec and Icelandic company Arctic Green Energy invested 400 million yuan (S$82 million) in the Xiong project, where they drilled almost 70 wells. The idea was to apply the technology that had already been tested in the Nordic country to northern China.

Sinopec, which has suffered in recent years from the tumble in oil prices worldwide and the slowdown of the Chinese economy, appears to be investing further in renewable energy, including solar and wind, as well as geothermal.

The firm has geothermal facilities in 16 Chinese provinces, allowing it to heat some 40 million sq m of homes and factories - and avoiding an estimated three million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

One potential benefit of the project could be a significant reduction in local air pollution, a problem that has long plagued much of northern China.

Sinopec aims to develop 20 "smokeless cities" nationwide by 2020, an ambition that aligns with the ruling Communist Party's plan to significantly reduce air pollution in Chinese cities, in part by increasing the use of clean energy to replace carbon-based fuels.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'China oil giant digs deep to bring clean energy to homes'. Print Edition | Subscribe