Want Cleaner Coal? Go to China.
Why American entrepreneurs are testing their technology overseas.
The U.S. market has failed to take off, Alix says, largely because the country so far has decided not to slap what amounts to a tax on the emission of carbon dioxide. Such a tax—a controversial idea amid a recession—would raise the price of carbon-intensive electricity. Thus, its backers say, it would fuel a shift to cleaner formers of power.
Beijing, unlike Washington, isn’t debating the intricacies of a carbon tax. Run by a one-party government, powered by state utilities, and financed by state banks flush with cash, China is moving ahead with a clean-coal push on a scale that, Alix says, “no one else is doing.”
Powerspan has inked a joint-venture deal with one of those state utilities, China Huaneng Group. In an experiment that has run for several years, Huaneng has been capturing a tiny portion of the carbon dioxide produced from two of its coal-fired power plants in Beijing and Shanghai and selling the gas to the food industry, which uses it to fizz up beer and soft drinks, says Xu Shishen, head of Huaneng’s Clean Energy Research Institute.
Other companies around the world have been capturing carbon dioxide and selling it for use in food and drink. So far, however, these operations are far too small to make any real dent in global greenhouse gas emissions. Alix contends that Powerspan has a more efficient technology than Huaneng’s current system, and he hopes that working with the Chinese power behemoth will give his company a chance to ramp up its stuff.
Carbon-scrubbing technologies vary in detail, but they typically intercept power-plant exhaust with a chemical that grabs the exhaust’s carbon dioxide before the greenhouse gas has a chance to escape into the air.
That is a hugely complicated process in itself. Yet it’s only half the challenge. Capturing carbon dioxide helps mitigate climate change only if the carbon dioxide is then somehow gotten rid of.
One popular goal is to shoot massive amounts of captured carbon dioxide underground, where, backers hope, it will stay permanently buried. But that goal brings with it a host of thorny questions, many reminiscent of the still-running debate over how to safely dispose of nuclear waste. Among them: Who’s legally liable if, centuries hence, some of that carbon dioxide burps up?
If capturing and storing carbon dioxide doesn’t work at a large scale, many energy experts say, then all the effort to curb carbon emissions through technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels may amount to so much hot air. If carbon capture and storage “is not widely deployed in the 2020s,” the International Energy Agency said last year, “an extraordinary burden would rest on other low-carbon technologies to deliver lower emissions in line with global climate objectives.”
And yet, carbon capture and storage faces “regulatory, policy, and technical barriers that make its deployment uncertain,” the agency said. “The likelihood is that there will be, at best, no more than a dozen large-scale demonstration plants in operation by 2020.”
Together, Powerspan and Huaneng now are moving beyond China. Last year, the pair was among a handful of bidders chosen by Statoil, Norway’s national oil company, to compete for the chance to provide the carbon-capture technology for what Statoil hopes will be one of the world’s biggest carbon-capture facilities at a Norwegian oil refinery. But first, Powerspan and Huaneng must prove their technology at pilot scale. (Disclosure: Statoil sponsors the Big Questions series but has no influence over its content.)
Their hopes are resting on a warren of pipes and gauges in an open-air fabrication yard in Miyun, a county north of Beijing. “You wouldn’t call it a factory,” Alix says with a chuckle, because even that would be too grandiose. “You’d call it a small industrial job shop.”
Jeffrey Ball is scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. Previously he worked at the Wall Street Journal, where he was environment editor and a longtime energy reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @jeff_ball.