BEIJING—On a typical day, the air above China’s big cities is so thick it seems chewable—a hazy gray soup that gets its consistency and color from the soot belched by the biggest clump of coal-fired power plants on the planet.
To a growing number of U.S. entrepreneurs, that gray looks like green: the color of money.
These Americans, ranging from startup inventors to big-utility chief executives, see China as a testing ground for technologies that burn coal more cleanly—technologies they hope one day to deploy around the world. They’re banking on a market for a new generation of cleaner coal-fired power plants in the United States many years from now, when a sizable chunk of the nation’s aging coal-fired power plants is likely to wear out and need replacing. But they see little appetite from U.S. investors or policymakers for the risk involved in trying to scale up these technologies today.
So, like all ambitious peddlers of newfangled widgets, they’re going where the buyers are: in this case to China, which over the past decade has become the biggest coal burner and carbon-dioxide emitter on Earth. They’re having a wild ride. But whether they’ll clean up coal on the massive scale that would be needed to affect the global environment, international energy experts say, is far from clear.
China, industrializing a century after the United States did, now burns about half the coal consumed each year in the world. The resulting pollution literally takes the breath away. A visitor stepping off a plane after landing at the Beijing airport on a winter night is taken aback by what smells like a forest fire but turns out to be just the urban air. The visitor is lucky, of course. Many locals walking or biking along city streets strap surgical-style masks over their mouths to protect their lungs. The masks often are decorated with snazzy patterns and bright colors—fashion accessories of a society soaked in soot.
China’s leaders have concluded this state of affairs is intolerable. Their concern is only partly about the esoteric prospect of climate change. It’s largely about something more immediate: the political instability that could come from a population of 1.3 billion people who are sick and tired of coughing.
In the United States, a mature economy where electricity consumption is basically flat and domestic natural gas is newly plentiful, “clean coal” has been reduced to a political totem—a symbol to environmentalists and industrialists alike of the elusiveness of whiz-bang technological fixes for global warming. But in China, power demand is growing at double-digit annual rates, and most of that juice is projected to be squeezed from the black rock for years to come. Clean coal—or, at least, cleaner coal—is seen here as something more urgent: a necessity for the country’s physical health and thus for its continued economic power.
In late October, China’s central government issued an energy-policy white paper laying out the breadth of its coal-fired ambition. The government wants to bring cheap power to China’s masses by stamping across its territory “large open-pit and super-large coal mines” as well as a new fleet of bigger coal-fired power plants. And yet, according to the white paper, the government wants to minimize the amount of smog-causing pollution and carbon dioxide that all this new coal-burning, or “thermal,” infrastructure will belch out. “China actively promotes green thermal power generation,” the paper said with a tinge of Madison Avenue flair.
This Chinese campaign explains why Frank Alix, a 55-year-old New Hampshire engineer who spent years developing a clean-coal technology he assumed he’d roll out on his home turf, has now shifted his focus almost entirely to China.
“We were not able to bring it to market in the U.S., because the market never materialized,” Alix says. His company, Powerspan Management Co., is one of several firms that have come up with processes they say have the potential to remove carbon dioxide from the exhaust of coal-fired power plants at prices that could make the technology competitive at the massive global scale necessary to meaningfully affect the environment.