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China leads the way on cleaner coal even as it burns more

Clean coal–long dismissed costly and technically impractical– may also be a stopgap measure in a world where we keep building coal power plants.

China leads the way on cleaner coal even as it burns more
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China fires up an average of one new coal-fired plant each week to fuel its blistering economic growth. In the U.S., despite growing opposition and the flood of cheap “fracked” natural gas, the Department of Energy says coal “will continue to provide the majority of our Nation’s baseload generation capacity” in the near future.

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As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels soar beyond 400 parts per million, the highest levels in at least 800,000 years, and beyond what some scientists believe may be a safe threshold (PDF), nations are turning to what’s called “clean coal” as a stopgap approach.

China, in particular, is racing ahead. Recently, engineers in Tianjin, China, fired up “GreenGen” a coal gasification power plant providing a “critically important” test of the technology’s commercial potential as a low-carbon power source, according to Julio Friedmann, who leads the carbon management program at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in IEEE Spectrum. “We still have no plan as nations or as a world to make really deep greenhouse-gas emissions cuts.” says Friedmann. “We have not economically vetted most of our important options, including integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants such as GreenGen.”

GreenGen aims to sequester at least 80% of the CO2 produced by the 400 MW plant (about double its current size) once it’s completed in 2020. The gasification technology converts coal into gases that are more cleanly burned to generate electricity, while turning the exhaust into a stream of CO2 that can be sent underground. GreenGen is the first plant explicitly built to test carbon capture at a commercial scale and prove its viability for the global coal industry.

We’re still far away from that goal. Despite two decades and $14 billion in clean coal funding from industry and government (about 75% of which came the private sector, reports the DOE), the commercial marketplace for these technologies remains anemic. FutureGen, the DOE’s flagship project in the U.S., died in 2008 (although it was resurrected with a different technology as FutureGen 2.0), and the next IGCC ready to go is a 618-MW plant in Edwardsport, Indiana, although that has been delayed and experienced cost overruns.

Although clean coal has long been derided as an oxymoron, it is also held up as a necessary measure to prevent more dire climate change. It may be both.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.

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