Answer to U.S. search for clean coal may lie in China

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 24, 2009 

WASHINGTON — As the United States begins spending $3.4 billion in stimulus money to seek a commercially viable way to capture carbon dioxide from coal burning and bury it underground, some energy experts say that doing some of the work as a joint project in China would cut costs and time.

Duke Energy, the third largest U.S. utility, last month became the nation's first electricity producer to open talks with a Chinese counterpart, China Huaneng Group, on the possibility of a joint carbon capture project in China. Huaneng already has an agreement with Australia's national science agency to develop carbon capture and storage in China. Duke signed a memorandum of understanding on energy development Wednesday with another Chinese company, ENN Group, and is looking into others.

China uses coal for 80 percent of its energy. In just the past few years, it added the equivalent of the entire U.S. coal-fired electrical generation capacity, and in years ahead it will add much more. Because coal is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and its use is growing — the International Energy Agency projects that global coal use will double in the next 30 years — figuring out what to do with it is a major part of any plan to prevent dangerous levels of warming.

In an interview with McClatchy, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the U.S. needed to work on carbon capture and storage because renewable energy wouldn't be plentiful enough until storage problems were solved, and because coal in the meantime was so abundant.

"When people in America say, or people in Europe say, 'Well, we can turn our back on coal. Why bother with carbon capture and storage?' I would say we have to develop the technologies first, because otherwise we would turn our back on 25 percent of the coal reserves in the world, which are in our borders," Chu said Tuesday.

A second reason, Chu said, is that it's unlikely that China or India will develop carbon capture and storage on its own if the United States and other industrialized countries decide against it.

The Clean Air Task Force, a private environmental group, released a report this month about new technologies that could make carbon capture and storage affordable one day. In some of these technologies, China has a lead. The environmental group proposed that the U.S. and China work on projects in China to make carbon capture and storage commercially usable.

"There are many hurdles to making (this) a reality, but none appear insurmountable," Chu, a Nobel Laureate in physics, wrote in an editorial in the latest issue of Science magazine.

Chu said that carbon capture and storage would be needed to reach the goal of an 80 percent reduction of emissions by 2050, and it wouldn't be used only for coal.

"We'd have to capture carbon from the gas plants and we also have to look at high-carbon-intensity industries like concrete, possibly steel," the energy secretary told McClatchy.

Chu said the world would accept an urgent need to control carbon emissions and would shift to more efficient use of energy, renewables and cleaner coal. "Therefore there will be all sorts of industries that will have to be developed," he said.

The extra cost of carbon capture and storage for electricity generation will become accepted, he said, because the alternative of not capturing it will be worse. It's no different from U.S. efforts to scrub other pollutants out of power plant emissions to prevent acid rain from destroying the nation's forests, fisheries, buildings and bridges.

The costs of fighting acid rain pollution were lower than initially expected. Costs for large-scale carbon capture and storage demonstration projects will be high, but Chu and others say that costs could drop as technologies are developed.

Sharing the high early costs is an important reason to collaborate with other countries, Chu added.

A commercial-scale demonstration project for carbon capture and storage at a coal plant — something the world doesn't have yet — would cost roughly $1 billion, and the heads of the world's leading industrialized countries called for 20 of them by next year.

Joint projects also would help spread knowledge, Chu said, "in the sense that you could read a cookbook but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll be a good cook. You could read a gardening book but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a green thumb. The expert knowledge of cooking and the green thumb largely comes from experience and doing."

Chu visited China during the summer, and the two countries signed an agreement to consider joint efforts on carbon capture and storage, among other energy projects.

"We have a lead on the storage part, but the point here is the U.S. and China have a lot to gain by working closely together," Chu said.

Jim Rogers, the president and chief executive of Duke Energy, predicts that coal will be "part of the equation" for decades.

"We have a lot to share and learn, because they're building so many power plants and their ability to adopt new technology and scale it (up) is a lot better," Rogers said in an interview in Washington.

However, it could be two decades or more before low-carbon coal begins to be used in the United States, and some experts say it could be much longer — if ever — in China.

Rogers said that cooperating with China could reduce the time needed to get carbon capture and storage ready for commercial use. The Electric Power Research Institute, made up of U.S. utilities, estimates that the technology will be ready for new coal-fired power plants after 2020.

Armond Cohen, the executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, said the U.S. should spend money in China to develop carbon capture and storage because China could move to scale up the technology faster and at a lower cost. In some related areas, such as one type of coal gasification, China's technology is ahead, he said.

A report in August by Richard K. Morse, Varun Rai and Gang He at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University argues that China is unlikely to use carbon capture and storage widely because it will be too expensive. The authors say that China is interested in developing the technology so that it has the capability in case it's ever needed.

Julio Friedmann, who leads research in carbon capture and storage at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has met with Chinese officials to discuss the prospects for low-carbon coal. Chinese officials are enthusiastic about carbon capture and storage because they're worried about climate change from coal-burning and other man-made emissions, and they see the potential value of the technology for export, he said.

At the same time, Friedmann said, they don't think the cost is reasonable. Carbon capture and storage as it's currently configured would require a large reduction in electricity output by coal power plants or the use of extra coal.

Friedmann said the costs of wind and solar had come down as a result of research and development, however, and that the costs of carbon capture and storage would, too, by 50 percent to 80 percent.

"All the science we have leads us to conclude we can construct and operate it safely and effectively," he said. Scientists have worked out the technology on a smaller scale, but the next step is large demonstration projects.

"What we haven't done is retrofit a plant at that scale — 400 to 500 megawatts — or build a new plant with 90 percent capture," he said. "It's challenging, but everybody knows what the work plan looks like."

Collaboration with China is essential, Friedmann said. "We will not hit our goals for climate without it."

ON THE WEB

"Coal Without Carbon: An Investment Plan for Federal Action," a report by the Clean Air Task Force

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