China Makes Moves to Cleaner Coal

Charles C. Mann reports on the benefits and obstacles to cleaner coal and why we need to explore carbon capture and storage even as we transition to renewable energy.
March 29, 2014, 7am PDT | Helen Brown
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While renewable energy use has increased in the United States, Charles C. Mann reports that China, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, will continue to depend on coal. As such, China is investing more on reducing the environmental impacts of coal by pioneering carbon capture and storage (CCS) at a larger scale than experimented elsewhere.

Mann reports: “China is launching CCS schemes...faster than any other nation, and the country is unique in its determination to address the emissions from coal-fired plants” versus similar U.S. facilities that “mainly take in CO2 from natural-gas wells and refineries—a worthwhile task but of only secondary importance.”

Opponents of CCS are concerned with three main constraints:

  • Inheritant costs: “CCS will eat up 20 to 30 percent of a power plant’s output. Given that typical coal plants can translate only 50 percent of the energy in coal into electricity, deploying CCS means that power plants will consume 40 to 60 percent more of the black stuff.”
  • Untested coal-stripping methods in the CCS process, and
  • Concern regarding secure storage: “In practice, [carbon dioxide] needs to be stored only for a century or so, the time required for the carbon dioxide to combine with the surrounding stone and form stable minerals. Still, nobody is yet sure how to safely contain CO2 for even that long.”

Yet, Mann reports that CCS remains an optimistic method in securing our energy use until our ability to store and depend on renewable energy improves: “Energy experts believe that it will be at least a century before modern societies can truly convert to renewable energy. Until then, they argue, carbon capture and storage is the only way to deal with the 10.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide that the world’s coal-fired power plants throw off annually.”

Innovations such as CCS are pertinent: “More than a century’s worth of coal remains beneath the surface—an amount so large, two University of Victoria climate scientists calculated in 2012, that burning it all would raise Earth’s average temperature as much as 44 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, this estimate comes with an asterisk, because after temperatures hit a certain point, current climate models break down, making the future almost impossible to predict.”

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Published on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in
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