Energy & Resources

Turning ‘black’ coal ‘green’

Construction of first “green” coal-fired power plant begins

Turning ‘black’ coal ‘green’

Try persuading her it's green

There is no clean coal technology,” says US Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. “There is cleaner coal technology, but there is no clean coal technology.”

The senator made the remark at an energy summit, where he vowed to block a ‘green coal’ power station in his home state of Nevada.

The power plant Reid was objecting to is labelled green because it uses a more advanced – and expensive – technology called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) to generate power.

This turns coal into gas and is far more efficient than traditional coal-fired power stations – and benefits from reduced emissions of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide.

Reid’s comment may be pithy, but in China – now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – a more popular ‘p’ word is ‘pragmatism’.

The country generates 76% of its electricity from coal, and while that percentage may drop one day, it won’t do so any time soon. Alternative energies will only gradually rebalance the energy mix.

So coal remains a necessary evil for the country’s leaders. And anything that can be done to mitigate its harmful effects is welcome.

Enter China’s first – and the world’s sixth – IGCC power station. Earlier this month construction began on the Tianjin Huaneng IGCC, which the 21CN Business Herald Newspaper calls “one of the world’s cleanest, most technologically advanced power generation projects.”

Around Rmb2.2 billion ($321 million) is being spent on the plant’s first phase, which will be capable of generating 250,000 kilowatts of electricity.

The newspaper reports that the plant will incorporate Huaneng’s self-developed two-stage coal gasifier technology – for which the Chinese power firm owns the intellectual property – and that it should start generating electricity by 2011.

The plant has been in the works for at least five years, but construction was stalled by cost concerns (IGCC generation can be twice as expensive to build as conventional coal-fired power).

Sharing the costs is a Huaneng-led consortium that includes a Tianjin investment corporation, as well as fellow power generators, Datang, Huadian, Guodian and China Power Investment Corporation.

Interestingly enough, China’s Ministry of Commerce has not approved America’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy, as a consortium member – even though the US firm has long been mooted as a strategic investor.

An informed source told the 21CN Business Herald that there were two major considerations for barring Peabody: “First, energy projects are more sensitive to foreign investment; second, once foreign capital is put into green coal-based power, the company will become a Sino-foreign joint venture, which will affect the project in obtaining around $150 million in loans from the Asian Development Bank.”

The power station is being viewed as a pilot or ‘demonstration’ project by the Chinese, and if successful a second phase will see a further 400,000KW added.

Huaneng is promising the most environmentally-friendly coal-fired plant in the world, with a power generation efficiency of 48% and a desulfurization efficiency forecast to reach over 99%.

Wu Ruosi, Huaneng’s deputy general manager, says the IGCC power station will use 70,000 tonnes less coal than an ordinary plant (of the same size) and generate a tenth of the carbon dioxide emissions. He acknowledges the technology is costly, but is optimistic it will get cheaper. “Future large scale production will see the cost of green-based coal substantially reduced, and make it more commercially viable,” says Wu.

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