Beijing: The closure of Beijing's last big coal-fired power station, which had dominated the skyline of the city's outskirts for 18 years, has been welcomed by environmental groups, who hope China will maintain momentum on its ambitious clean energy targets.
Beijing had promised in 2013 to have its four coal-fired power stations shut down by this year.
The Huaneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant shut its coal-fired power generator on Saturday. The move was trumpeted in state media as making Beijing the first coal-free city for electricity and heating in China.
Beijing's mayor, Cai Qi, was quoted as saying: "Replacing coal with clean energy is not only to deal with air pollution but also a requirement of the company's transformation."
The coal-fired generator will be kept as a back-up, as a new power plant using natural gas comes into operation soon. Three other coal power stations had already been replaced with natural gas.
Huaneng said the shutdown of the generator, which had an installed capacity of 845,000 kilowatts and a heating capacity of 26 million square metres, would cut coal consumption by 1.6 million tonnes a year.
Beijing has committed to reducing coal use by 11.8 million tonnes by the end of 2017, compared to 2012 levels. It will reach 70 per cent of the target after the latest closure.
The announcement comes as the Chinese government is under pressure to solve an air pollution problem that continues to grate with ordinary residents.
Greenpeace China's air pollution spokesman Liansai Dong said the closure of the fourth and final coal power station in Beijing was just one of a series of steps the city had taken to curb air pollution. It had also declared a "zero coal zone" in central Beijing.
But he added: "Beijing alone cannot fully solve its air pollution problem. Surrounding provinces like Hebei should develop more renewable energy and accelerate on phasing out coal power and other coal boilers."
While gas emission levels were relatively better than coal, gas wasn't "the ultimate solution" as it still produced nitrogen oxide pollution which affects air quality, he said.
"If we want to solve the problem of climate change and air pollution, of which coal and fossil fuels are the cause, we should transfer to renewable energy," he said.
In the past year China had been the top country globally in terms of installing solar and wind farm capacity. "China has made some progress and we hope China can keep up this ambitious pace," he said.
Mr Dong said "quite a lot" of renewable energy was being developed across China, but the next problem to be solved was distribution and "how to integrate clean and green energy into the energy system".
China's National Development and Reform Commission committed to a target of lowering coal's share of total energy consumption to 58 per cent by 2020 and raising non-fossil fuels to 15 per cent or more, and natural gas to 10 per cent.
China is the world's third-largest buyer of natural gas, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said last week that Australia was set to become the largest exporter of natural gas.
China's natural gas imports surged to a record high in November 2016, with shipments from countries including Australia up 46.6 per cent on the previous year, as cities such as Beijing prepared for the winter heating season.
Shortages in winter a year earlier had seen heating reduced to Beijing offices. The closure of the Huaneng power station has come at the end of the heating season, as Beijing's weather warms significantly.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged at the opening of China's annual parliament this month "we will make our skies blue again", with a plan that included cutting coal use, upgrading coal-fired power plants and encouraging clean energy use.
Mr Li was questioned by a Beijing reporter on the closing day of the parliament as to why clear skies appeared during important events such as the parliament, when smog was a constant source of anxiety in people's daily lives.
Mr Li responded that China would "call an end to smog so that a clear sky won't be a luxury in the future".
Beijing has 27 power plants relying on clean energy with a total capacity of 11.3 million kilowatts.