By Meng Meng and Chen Aizhu
BEIJING (Reuters) - For 53-year-old Wang Ying, a resident of a rural village near Beijing, clean-burning fuel to take the chill off winter has finally arrived, but it comes at a higher cost.
Wang is one of millions of residents across northeast China to have their households converted from coal to natural gas for heating this winter, which officially began on Nov. 15.
A group of Beijing Gas engineers connected her new gas boiler to the city grid at 9 a.m. and tested her cooking and heating equipment, before moving on to the rest of Xiaozhangwan village, which will see its first-ever winter without coal as the main source of heat and fuel.
At noon, Wang cooked her son the first meal on their new gas cooker: scrambled eggs and steamed dumplings.
"This is the first time I used natural gas for cooking and heating. Indeed, it is much cleaner," Wang said, pointing to her courtyard, previously tainted by coal dust but now covered by white ceramic tiles.
"My only concern is that the gas heating is so much more expensive," she said.
Wang said the family will pay about 8,000 yuan ($1,200) in gas bills this winter. Last winter, the family paid about 5,000 yuan ($755) for coal.
That's the price that local residents like Wang Ying will have to pay for cleaner air as coal is phased out as part of a major environmental cleanup directed by Beijing.
To save on fuel costs, Wang said she plans to turn on the gas boiler for heating only after 6 p.m., when her grandson returns from kindergarten.
Other residents said they were worried that gas heating is not as stable and effective as coal.
Gao Decai, another resident of Xiaozhangwan, said the temperature in his house only reached 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit) after he turned on his new gas boiler. With his old coal boiler, he said, it was usually 18 degrees Celsius in winter.
"I was disappointed after the long wait to use gas for the first time," Gao said. "The gas cooker cannot reach the temperature of the old coal cooker. We cannot boil the porridge because the temperature is not high enough."
Gao has already bought 9,000 yuan worth of gas for the winter, equivalent to about 40 yuan of daily heating expenses for one family. But he said he might have to buy extra liquefied petroleum gas tanks to heat up his stove.
"The policy (of switching to gas) could backfire if gas is not as effective as coal," Gao said.
Temperatures are likely to go up as Beijing Gas increases pressure in the pipelines, said Wu Jianfeng, a worker from a local gas operator that supervised the village's gasification.
Beijing Gas, which oversees the majority of gasification projects in Beijing, said it will start piping gas to more than 328 rural villages no later than Wednesday to meet a government deadline to start using natural gas for heating by Nov. 15.
On the first day, Wu was still racing to wrap up his work, making safety checks on pipelines and boilers for 40 houses in Xiaozhangwan.
"The amount of work handled by us is unprecedented. The team of engineers has worked until midnight to pay visits to homes this week," Wu said.
(Reporting by Meng Meng and Aizhu Chen; Editing by Tom Hogue)