Tuesday, February 1, 2011

China, Energy, and Coal

China is embarking on a modernization plan that is truly awesome in its scope. Elizabeth C. Economy has described the scale of this endeavor here.

“At the heart of this next revolution is Beijing's plan to urbanize 400 million people by 2030. In 1990, just 25 percent of all Chinese lived in cities; today, that number is almost 45 percent. By 2030, it will be 70 percent. Urbanizing China will allow for a more effective distribution of social services and help reduce income disparities.”

“The resource demands of rapid urbanization are substantial. Half of the world's new building construction occurs in China, and according to one estimate, the country will construct 20,000-50,000 new skyscrapers over the coming decades. Shanghai, already the country's most populous urban center, will soon be surrounded by ten satellite cities -- each with half a million people or more. Connecting all these and other new cities throughout the country will require 53,000 miles of highway. Once the cities are built and connected, the demand for resources will continue to grow: urban Chinese consume more resources than those in rural areas (roughly 3.5 times as much energy and 2.5 times as much water), placing significant stress on the country's already scarce resources. By 2050, China's city dwellers will likely account for around 20 percent of global energy consumption.”
China’s projected energy production can be found here.

Note that China is currently deriving the majority of its energy from coal. While they are making large investments in all alternate sources of energy, and the fraction of energy derived from coal will decrease considerably, the amount of coal-based production will continue to increase.

James Fallows keys off of this continued reliance on coal to provide an interesting article in ”the Atlantic” with the intriguing title: Dirty Coal, Clean Future. He makes the point that coal is the world’s dominant source of energy and that is not going to change on any meaningful timescale.
“Overall, coal-burning power plants provide nearly half (about 46 percent this year) of the electricity consumed in the United States. For the record: natural gas supplies another 23 percent, nuclear power about 20 percent, hydroelectric power about 7 percent, and everything else the remaining 4 or 5 percent. The small size of the “everything else” total is worth noting; even if it doubles or triples, the solutions we often hear the most about won’t come close to meeting total demand. In China, coal-fired plants supply an even larger share of much faster-growing total electric demand: at least 70 percent, with the Three Gorges Dam and similar hydroelectric projects providing about 20 percent, and (in order) natural gas, nuclear power, wind, and solar energy making up the small remainder. For the world as a whole, coal-fired plants provide about half the total electric supply.”

“The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”—and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much.”
We must reduce carbon dioxide, but we are unavoidably dependent on burning coal. Is all lost?
“For the coal industry, the term “clean coal” is an advertising slogan; for many in the environmental movement, it is an insulting oxymoron. But two ideas that underlie the term are taken with complete seriousness by businesses, scientists, and government officials in China and America, and are the basis of the most extensive cooperation now under way between the countries on climate issues. One is that coal can be used in less damaging, more sustainable ways than it is now. The other is that it must be used in those ways, because there is no plausible other way to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands. “
There are known ways of burning coal more efficiently. Modern plants burn coal at higher temperatures and pressures, thus providing greater efficiency and more energy for a given amount of coal. In situ coal gasification is also available. This converts coal deposits to gas containing less carbon per unit energy and eliminating many of the other pollutants resident in coal. But these are small effects. If coal burning and greenhouse gas reduction are to be consistent, then the carbon dioxide emissions are going to have to be contained and prevented from entering the atmosphere.
“Once “captured” as a relatively pure stream of carbon dioxide, this part of the exhaust is pressurized into liquid form and then sold or stored. Refitting an existing coal plant can be very costly. “It’s like trying to remodel your home into a mansion,” a coal-plant manager told me in Beijing. “It’s more expensive, and it’s never quite right.” Apart from research projects, only two relatively small coal-fired power plants now operate in America with post-combustion capture.”

“Designing a capture system into a plant from the start is cheaper than doing refits. But even then the “parasitic load” of energy required to treat, compress, and otherwise handle the separated stream of carbon dioxide can come to 30 percent or more of the total output of a coal-fired power plant—so even more coal must be burned (and mined and shipped) to produce the same supply of electricity.”
Given the fact that the United States is unable to act on global warming, and unable to impose a cost on carbon consumption, there is not much commercial motivation to move to more costly technologies.
“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.”
Given that the United States is unable to act directly, what can be done? Fortunately, we have China, a country that can apparently do whatever it wants and it can do it quickly. Consider the scale of China’s investment in coal technology.

China is building many coal-driven plants. That means it has opportunities to implement new technologies.
“’They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,’ David Mohler of Duke Energy told me.”

“’In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,’ a U.S. government official who works in China said. ‘Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese’.”

“’You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,’ the official added. ‘The energy demand is going like this’—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—‘and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.’”
The energy companies know that they have to move to clean coal technologies even if their government discourages them from doing so by refusing to add a cost to carbon consumption. Therefore they must turn to China, the only action around. What can the United States contribute at this point?
“In the quest for cleaner coal, America’s contribution is mainly ‘soft power’—advice, coordination, prodding, and expertise—in hopes of influencing what Chinese organizations do.”
We tend to think of China, with its reliance on coal powered plants, as a threat to the environment. Fallows puts an interesting new spin on that perspective. If you buy the notion that coal is here to stay, and there is a compelling argument, then research into techniques for capturing the resultant carbon dioxide must take place. One can only do so much with pencil and paper and computers. You have to go out in the field and try things. At the moment, China appears to be the only country capable of accomplishing anything.
“In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well.”

“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.”

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