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Joined: Mon Mar 10th, 2008
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 Posted: Fri Apr 29th, 2011 08:13 am


James Fallows Reviews "Clean Coal Technology";

US Lags Behind China in R and D

some excerpts:

...The significant Chinese developments involve more than the “clean tech” boom that Americans have already heard so much about. Instead a different, less publicized, and much less appealing-sounding effort may matter even more in determining whether the United States and China can cooperate to reduce emissions. This involves not clean tech but the dirtiest of today’s main energy sources—coal.

In the early 2000s the task force ( Chinese-American), originally a conventional anti-air-pollution group, embraced the necessity of cleaning up coal. In Beijing, Sung gave me a copy of its latest working paper, in both Chinese and English, called “Coal Without Carbon.”

The group has sponsored research on sequestration, on post-combustion capture, and on the “cleanest” of the emerging pre-combustion coal technologies—“underground coal gasification.” In this process, jets of air (or pure oxygen), sometimes with steam or various chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. They interact chemically with the coal to produce a gas that flows back up a pipe and can be burned. It leaves in the ground much of the carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, and other elements that create greenhouse gases and other pollutants when coal is burned.

“And this can be very cheap,” Sung told me. “You don’t have to mine the coal. You don’t have to send men underground or haul coal around or dispose of ash. All the dirty stuff stays buried.” Because of these and other savings, he said, coal used this way could match or beat the price of today’s standard dirty power plant.

But in advocating the whole range of “clean coal” technologies, Sung and his team have the same problem Julio Friedmann has with carbon sequestration: it’s not happening in the United States.

There’s one significant exception: the Texas Clean Energy Project, a plant being built outside Odessa, which will apply underground-gasification technology to capture 90 percent of its carbon, more than any other commercial plant in the world. It received a $450 million federal award, just over half from the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative and the rest from the American Recovery and Reinvestment stimulus program (toward the $2.1 billion total capital cost).

If it works as promised, this facility will be an advance over any coal-fired plant operating anywhere: it will gasify coal underground, eliminating the cost and damage of mining; it will sell urea (for fertilizer) and other chemical by-products of the underground gasification; and it will use the captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery in the nearby Permian Basin oil fields—all in addition to generating power. [Correction: The decarbonization and other cleanup steps that make this plant distinctive are done above rather than underground. For full details, see] But otherwise, to see new technology in action and to influence the next dozen coal plants being built in the world, Ming Sung had to go back to China.

“For the last 30 years, we have not been able to build a coal-to-gas conversion plant in this country,” a U.S. coal-company official told me. “China has done many. That is what we need to learn from them, all that production and operating experience.” And in exchange? “We do have safety and environmental information that we can definitely provide.”

Ten years ago, the United States and many other countries set joint targets of building a series of experimental low- emissions, high-efficiency coal-fired power plants: FutureGen in America, ZeroGen in Australia, various European efforts without a “Gen” name, and GreenGen in China. America’s FutureGen was proposed early, and China’s GreenGen was proposed late. Now—surprise!—GreenGen is closest to being completed, with its scheduled opening moved up from 2015 to 2013, and FutureGen has only recently begun to move beyond the congressional-wrangling stage.

What Sung takes from the interaction is both operational knowledge and the chance to influence China’s decisions in some way. What he has provided is another sort of connection, between Chinese organizations and the private businesses that mine coal and generate electricity in the United States. “That is the reason we are here—to get companies together,” Sung said. “It is taking too long for governments to agree on policies, so we believe in B-to-B connections.” At a crucial point, he arranged a meeting in Beijing between the CEO of Duke Energy, Jim Rogers, and Zhang Guobao, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, essentially China’s director of industrial policy. “After the meeting, Zhang said, ‘I fully support this collaboration,’” Sung told me. “With that sentence, what more could you ask for?”

Duke got serious about China only two and a half years ago, after Rogers, the CEO, took his grandson on a trip there in the summer of 2008 as a high-school graduation present. The elder Rogers, like so many first-time visitors, was stunned by the scale and dynamism of what he saw. He immediately urged his senior management team to learn about and visit China. “There is something you can’t sense from your office in America,” the director of Duke’s China operations, a 30-year-old woman named River Lu, told me. She grew up in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. “Here you feel the pollution, you feel the growth, you feel the energy.” (Her Chinese name is Lu Yun; she chose the English name “River” in her teens. The creativity and often beauty of these chosen names is a dependable pleasure of meeting young English-speaking Chinese.) Although she did not leave China until her mid-20s, for graduate work at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, she has a native-American accent, which she says comes from watching Friends and Ally McBeal on Hong Kong TV.

David Mohler, Duke’s chief technology officer, was one of the first visitors and most frequent return travelers. “We learned that China is preparing, by 2025, for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t exist now,” he told me. “They have to build the equivalent of the U.S. electrical system”—that is, almost as much added capacity as the entire U.S. grid—“by 2025. It took us 120 years.” Rogers, Mohler, and the company as a whole moved quickly from being impressed or frightened by Chinese growth to determining how they could work with it.

“We realized there was no way we could duplicate their speed, the scale, or the constancy of energy policy within the United States,” Mohler said. “So we wondered if we could find Chinese partners to work with in applying these clean technologies, so we could bring the benefits of their speed and scale back to the United States.” In his speeches and interviews, Rogers frequently emphasizes that by 2050, Duke will need to replace or rebuild every one of its existing power plants in the United States, except for its hydroelectric facilities. Some, because of age; the rest, to meet what Duke considers to be inevitably tightening clean-energy standards. “We will have a huge need for capital,” Mohler said. Duke’s capital budget for the next three years is $18 billion, and only in China can the company find that plus the operational experience of seeing cleaner-coal technologies as they are deployed. Duke Energy supported the Obama administration’s now-abandoned climate bill, because it would have added predictability to the future standards the company will have to meet. With or without a bill, it is looking to China for future financing.

Within months of Rogers’s first visit, Duke had opened an office in China, headed by River Lu. Within a year of the visit, in the summer of 2009, Duke signed an agreement for joint research with China’s largest energy company, Huaneng, and with the government’s Thermal Power Research Institute. Within the clean-energy world, the institute’s director of technology, Xu Shisen, is a celebrity known for his advocacy of clean-coal projects. Huaneng has bought a share in a new low-emissions Duke plant in Edwardsport, Indiana. [Correction: The Memorandum of Understanding between Duke and Huaneng, which involves employees of each company visiting the other’s plants and sharing information and research, does not include direct investment by Huaneng. Duke has a joint-venture understanding with another Chinese company, the ENN group, toward developing merchant solar panel plants in the United States.]

“As China meets its capacity, it is likely that the best technologies will be commercialized and applied here faster than anywhere else,” River Lu said. “We want to be involved in that process.”

China’s cooperation with the United States on coal is good news for the world. If the two countries had decided to make this another arena for demonstrating their respective toughness—if, as at the failed Copenhagen talks last winter, they had mainly exchanged accusations about who was more to blame for emissions problems—they would have guaranteed that the problems could not be solved. If that cooperation breaks down, Julio Friedmann said, “we’ll end up paying twice as much to get the same learnings—and delaying the technology on both sides by another decade.” Both sides seem to have looked for ways to keep the cooperation going. They have not been in the newspapers, but they deserve recognition for attempting to do the world’s work.

But China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct.

The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.

The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will.

“The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems.

“No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else,” Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official who now writes the blog Climate Progress, told me. “It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.”

The Chinese system as a whole has great weaknesses as well as great strengths. Its challenges, as I have reported so often in these pages, make the threats facing America look trivial by comparison. But its response to the energy challenge—including its commitment to dealing with the dirty, unavoidable reality of coal—reveals a seriousness about facing big problems that America now appears to lack.

Last edited on Fri Apr 29th, 2011 08:27 am by sydneyst

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