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China accounts for half of the world’s annual coal consumption. Coal is the primary energy source for heating in urban areas, particularly in northern China. This causes significant challenges for urban air quality problems in China and greenhouse gases emissions. Urban district heating (DH) systems penetration is very high in northern China. It supplies space heating to more than 80% of urban buildings in the area. Unlike the electricity and transportation sectors, the heating sector has received little attention from policy makers and researchers in China, DH systems are an enabling infrastructure which facilitates energy efficiency improvements and the use of renewable energy sources. This study explores the dynamics and possibility to expand alternative energy sources (natural gas, biomass, direct geothermal heat, ground-source heat pump, municipal waste heat, industrial waste heat) for DH in China. We apply an analytical framework largely based on the multi-level perspective in socio-technical transitions theory, in which transitions are interpreted as the result of the functioning of niche, regime and landscape elements, and interactions between them. The study provides an integrated picture of the socio-technical structure and functioning of DH in China. The results show that an energy transition in Chinese DH systems has barely started. The system is characterised by stability of the coal-based DH regime, while a number of alternative niches are struggling to emerge. Among these, natural gas is the most successful example. However, at local level different niches present opportunities in terms of physical availability, economic viability and technical capacity to address changes in landscape pressures. A sustainable heat roadmap based on integrated energy planning and policy attention at the national level could be developed as one mechanism for instigating a much needed energy transition in DH in China.
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