The heat is on for Tibet's remote prefecture

Central heating was switched on for the first time in history in Tibet's Ngari prefecture Thursday.

The sparsely-populated plateau region is known for having among the roughest winter weather on earth. At 4,500 meters above sea level, Ngari typically has more than 200 days a year with temperatures below zero. The lowest temperature on record was minus 36.7 degrees Celsius.

Water heating pipes are now installed in homes and offices in Shiquanhe town where most of the population resides. Central heating is expected to warm up an area of 1.5 million square meters, according to local officials.

The facilities, with a maximum 12 megawatts capacity, cost 1.77 billion yuan (262 million U.S. dollars) to build, the officials said.

Traditionally, residents at this remote corner of the world burn yak dung, dried wood, or coal in defense of the freezing weather. In recent years, the smoking chimneys from hundreds of coal-fired boilers in Shiquanhe have raised environmental concerns.

The central heating service will replace at least 150 small boilers and save 32,000 tons of coal annually. The emission of 103 tons of dust, nine tons of carbon dioxide, and 2,000 tons of coal residue will be avoided each year, said Yuan Fuguo, a senior prefecture official.

Many local people are simply happy to stay warm indoors with the central heating on.

"In class, we won't shiver in our big quilts any more," said Yexe Zhoima, a primary school student. "The winter becomes warm with the heating."

A nurse said that medics in local hospitals are now able to tend to patients without wearing clumsy overcoats. "It is also a blessing to patients who had to bring portable heaters with them in the past," she said.