‘As goes China, so goes the world’ – that prophecy was given new urgency earlier this week when the country’s chief climate negotiator finally admitted that, yes, the world’s factory is also its largest emitter of greenhouse gases. What that means in practical terms is that the prospects for limiting the amount of carbon generated depend largely on what happens to China’s power industry.
One fossil fuel in particular is important in the struggle against carbon: coal. The mineral is the backbone of China’s power supply, providing 70% of the grid’s needs. “For China, coal dominates the energy mix,” warns professor Ni Weidou, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, “not only at present, but also for the next 40 to 50 years.”
In an effort to use its reserves more efficiently (and spare the planet some pain), China has aspirations to become a world leader in technologies for making coal power less harmful. State-owned power giant Huaneng’s ‘Green Gen’ power plant in Tianjin is at the cutting edge of that endeavour – but it’s still far from certain that the new technology has a future nationwide.
In order for carbon to be stored safely it must first be captured, and that means building IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) power plants. The technology works by turning the coal into gas, and then removing the resulting impurities (like mercury). What you’re left with is carbon dioxide, and the remaining problem of how to store it.
When Huaneng’s Tianjin plant gets up and running, it will provide a test case for whether or not to continue pursuing IGCC technology. “It is expected to be test run in June next year and eventually to achieve near-zero emissions of pollutants including sulfur dioxide [the chief cause of acid rain] and carbon dioxide,” explains Century Weekly.
“Pollution will be low, close to the level of natural gas, which will remain beyond the reach of conventional coal-fired power plants for a long time,” boasts one of the projects main advocates, Dr Xu Shisen, chief technology officer of the Thermal Power Research Institute. At first, the plant will generate 250MW, but that figure should increase to 650MW when the final construction phase is completed in 2016.
And it has another important advantage: “Its efficiency will exceed that of conventional coal-fired power generation technology,” according to Dr Xu. IGCC plants usually need about a third less coal to generate the same amount of power as their more traditional cousins.
The downside: Huaneng’s IGCC plant requires twice the investment of conventional plants (around $1,500 per MW). About $400 million has already been spent on the new facility, and the final cost it expected to near $1 billion.
The investment cost suggests that an IGCC future depends squarely on the policy support on offer from the NDRC (the National Development and Reform Commission), the country’s top economic planning body. Right now, there seems to be a marked lack of enthusiasm. Zhang Guobao, deputy head of the NDRC told an industry conference earlier this year that the costs were still too high and the technology too immature.
IGCC proponents, on the other hand, argue that costs will come down as more plants are built, and that, anyway, is a price worth paying for reduced carbon emissions. “If we delay the transition to [new] technologies with coal gasification at their core it will significantly increase the cost of cleaning up air pollution in the future,” maintains Tsinghua University professor Ni Weidou.
For now, the problem of what to do with the captured carbon dioxide has yet to be solved. Perhaps even more than cost, this remains the technology’s biggest stumbling block. The ‘Green Gen’ plant is situated conveniently close to several depleted oil wells, which may offer storage options. But China has little experience of keeping the emitted gas underground, and no one really knows if oil well storage will work.
At least ‘Green Gen’ shows that that China’s leaders are willing to try out new ideas often stalled at debating stage in most Western capitals. But IGCC’s future, as well as the prospects for reducing CO2 emissions, are likely to hinge on whether the project’s engineers can find a solution to how best to store the CO2 underground.
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