China: stoking the fire

Published online on July 23, 2008, in Nature

China burns more coal than any other country; how it does so in the future will determine our planet’s climate. Jeff Tollefson reports from Beijing.

Huang Bin, a 30-year-old engineer, is surveying the scene at one of China’s showcase energy projects: a retrofit that will make the Gaobeidian coal-fired power plant in Beijing burn just a little bit cleaner. Three engineers in red hard hats pore over a blueprint, their fingers tracing lines on paper splayed across a steel tank. Two workers adjust a valve nearby, one of hundreds on a two-storey platform erected alongside two 30-metre-high vessels that will house the chemical reactions at the heart of the project. Sparks fly as welders connect pipes; the buzz of grinders comes and goes. The ground was broken on this project just three months ago, and even an outside observer can tell that there is plenty still to do. But no one seems to doubt that the world’s latest carbon-capture pilot plant will be finished in three weeks’ time. “Chinese speed,” Huang says with a smile.

That was in late June. Last week, as planned, the new unit began stripping carbon dioxide out of a small stream of exhaust from the plant, a high-efficiency, 1,065-megawatt monster that churns out 10% of Beijing’s power and one-third of its hot-water heat. The Huaneng Group, the government-owned company that runs the plant, plans to collect less than 1% of the CO2 emitted here, ultimately to provide some of the fizz in locally made carbonated drinks. It is a modest goal, but for China the project is a gesture of goodwill, a tentative step into the kinds of technologies needed to decarbonize an economy that derives more than two-thirds of its energy from coal.

For years, China has lagged behind the West in researching ways to burn coal more cleanly, but that is beginning to change. Huang and his colleagues are coming of age in an era in which the Chinese learn by doing, and what they are doing today is advanced coal technology. The total time for the Gaobeidian retrofit from announcement through design and commissioning was nine months.

Chinese speed has raised entire cities and built modern highways, all while providing at least basic energy services to most of its 1.3 billion people. It has also frightened a world already alarmed by global warming. The planet’s most populous nation has added some 170 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity in the past two years alone — more than double Britain’s entire electricity-generating capacity, installed over a century — and has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Yet China’s single-minded determination to get things done, if properly harnessed, could drive down costs and commercialize advanced coal technologies that have languished in labs and boardrooms in the West. In many ways, China has already positioned itself at the forefront of coal technology, but ‘advanced’ does not necessarily mean clean. Climate-friendly technologies would enable companies to capture and pump CO2 underground, eliminating most of the emissions from coal. By contrast, even new technologies for converting coal into transportation fuels without carbon capture might increase China’s reliance on coal, as well as its emissions.

“It’s relatively easy for me to imagine the Chinese will get way out in front of us in the United States and Europe,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, an expert in China energy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The Chinese are committed to installing advanced technology. The question right now is which technology it will be.”

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