By Kathy Chen and David Stanway
BEIJING (Reuters) - Beijing will build four gas-fired power and heating plants by next year and shut the last of its coal-fired generators by 2017 as part of its campaign against hazardous air pollution, officials said.
However, while progress has been made in cutting major pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, China's sprawling capital will still need many years to bring smog down to acceptable levels as the authorities struggle to find alternative energy supplies.
"The level of small particulate matter or PM2.5 that we monitored is 1.5 times higher than the standard," Zhang Dawei, director of the monitoring center at the municipal environmental bureau, said late on Thursday during a media tour of facilities.
"It will still need two decades to clean up the smog."
Beijing is on the frontline of a "war on pollution" launched by central government last year, amid fears that public disquiet about the state of the country's sky, water and soil could spill over into political unrest.
The city authorities have already promised to relocate big polluting industries into neighboring Hebei province and slash total coal use to less than 10 million tonnes by 2017, a fall of 13 million tonnes in just four years.
Three of its four thermal power stations have already been retired, with two closures in March this year likely to cut annual consumption by 4.6 million tonnes, according to Li Xiang, an official with the environmental bureau.
"Because we aggressively reduced coal consumption in the first quarter of the year, the level of sulfur dioxide in the period reached a historical low," Li said.
Beijing will also invest 47.7 billion yuan ($7.70 billion) to build four natural-gas-fired cogeneration plants by this year to provide cleaner heat and power for its 20 million citizens.
The switch to gas for the generation of power will help Beijing meet 70 percent of its planned coal cuts.
Beijing's gas consumption reached 11.3 billion cubic meters last year, 80 percent of which was used for power and heating, according to Zhang Wangcai, vice-director of the energy department of the Beijing development and reform commission.
But despite facing political pressure, power generators have struggled from the switch to gas as they are unable to pass higher costs on to consumers because of state price controls.
The government is pushing to give the market a bigger say over price-setting in natural gas to help cover the costs of pipeline-building and transportation.
($1 = 6.1958 Chinese yuan)
(Editing by Alan Raybould)