A new plant places the world’s biggest polluter at the forefront of global efforts to produce clean coal power. But Gaia Vince thinks China needs to be bolder.

It may look like a jumble of pipes and towers, but as I stand on a nondescript industrial estate 150 kilometres (93 miles) south east of Beijing, I cannot help feeling a bit like an awestruck pilgrim in the presence of what may be the world's best hope for a workable solution to our energy troubles. The newly opened GreenGen energy plant in Tianjin is the most advanced clean coal power station – and if that sounds like an oxymoron, well suspend your disbelief a little longer.

This Tianjin plant places China at the vanguard of global efforts to use coal resources without releasing carbon dioxide. In 2008, the G8 group of nations supported the launch of 20 large-scale projects demonstrating technologies for carbon capture and storage by 2010. But delays and cancellations have meant most countries have made heavy work of enforcing the plan.

Which is why I have travelled to Tianjin. China uses more coal than the United States, Europe and Japan combined to fuel its economic boom. With coal supplies providing more than two-thirds of the country’s electricity needs, power stations have been opening at a rate of one a week for the past several years. Reports say vast swathes of northern China have been mined to satisfy the unceasing demand for coal, leaving millions of people living precariously on the land above. So it’s perhaps the last place you would expect to see what is in front of my eyes.

But here it is: China's first self-developed integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) power station. This plant produces 250MW of electricity by converting coal to ‘syngas’ – a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen – which is then be used to drive turbines.

It's a far cleaner and more efficient way of using coal.

For a start, the sulphurous pollutants that stain the sky and obscure the sun over Chinese cities are almost entirely scrubbed by the IGCC process for recycling. So too are nitrous emissions and other impurities, including mercury and soot. This efficient method produces just one-tenth of the usual carbon dioxide emissions – and the best bit is the greenhouse gas is streamed out in an almost pure form, making it easy to capture and store. However, it is more expensive to produce electricity this way – a cost of around 80 cents per hour, compared to 50 cents per hour for regular plants – although the company intends to slash costs through further efficiency innovations.

Currently, the 3,000 tonnes of CO2 produced by the facility is being sold at a profit to beverage companies to make fizzy drinks, but GreenGen's owner, the state electricity giant Huaneng Group, plans to sequester the gas – as much as 3 million tonnes a year – in off-shore oil wells in the nearby Bohai Sea to aid oil recovery there.

Yes, oil recovery – another greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuel... China may well be forging ahead of the pack in carbon capture technology – it is already licensing its IGCC technology to a US gasification company – but curbing carbon dioxide emissions still falls some way behind economic development priorities, as is the case elsewhere. A couple of months ago, Huaneng opened the world's largest post-combustion carbon dioxide capture facility at Shidongkou outside Shanghai. The plant captures an impressive 100,000 tonnes of CO2, ostensibly to sell to the beverage industry. But, this quantity of gas far exceeds the requirements of the soft drinks industry – the rest of the carbon dioxide is simply released into the atmosphere.

Fuelling the problem

One solution for storing the excess CO2 may lie in the country's desert north. In the dry steppes of Inner Mongolia and the Gobi desert, scientists are experimenting with storing CO2 in deep saline aquifers. These vast, stable spots should be able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2, although rather than profiting from the sale of CO2, energy companies will have to pay to transport and store the gas.

But here’s the paradox. The past five years has seen a concerted effort by the government to 'clean' up its coal production, shutting small unsafe mines and power stations, and moving the biggest polluters out of cities. Projects like the IGCC plants stem from this move, but so do more controversial ones. In Ordos, Inner Mongolia, the world's biggest coal to liquid diesel plant has opened. Having relatively little gas and even less natural oil reserves, the worrying signs are that China is looking to coal to provide fuel for its transport too.

While the facility, run by Shenhua, looks clean and non polluting – like the IGCC plant – it is the most environmentally damaging of all. Cracking the hydrocarbons in coal to produce diesel generates up to twice as much CO2 as using oil, and the process requires enormous volumes of water – 6.5 tonnes of water per tonne of liquid fuel. Such quantities would be tricky to manage near a river system, but in the dry desert, they are disastrous. Water is being pumped from an aquifer more than 70 kilometres (43 miles) away. And of the estimated 3 million tonnes of CO2 produced annually, the plant's owners say that perhaps 100,000 tonnes could be stored in saline aquifers nearby.

China is still developing and improving access to energy, and this is vital if the country is to continue its necessary growth to lift millions out of poverty. But the nation already produces a quarter of global carbon emissions, making it the biggest polluter. If China's technological prowess is to be matched by environmental commitment, schemes like this will have to be abandoned – the world simply cannot afford for China to run its cars on coal to liquid fuel.

Renewable push

So what are the alternatives? China has been forging ahead with electrification – its high-speed trains zip across the country at hundreds of kilometres an hour – and electricity can be produced from a range of low-carbon sources including nuclear, wind and solar. China is already investing heavily in wind, carpeting areas of the Gobi in turbines, and it aims to send the power generated from the remote north on high-voltage cross-country transmission lines to populated cities.

Giant solar farms are also springing up across the country from the Gobi desert to sites closer to the end users, including a 20MW farm in Xuzhou in Jiangsu province owned by GLC-Poly. China is the biggest producer of solar PV panels and a large part of the reason for the technology's rapid fall in price. But with the export market stalled, it remains to be seen whether the domestic market can take over.

Impressive though the investment in solar and wind has been, power generated by renewables is simply supplementing that which is generated from coal, not replacing it. In order to begin decarbonising the economy – a tough call, while the country is still industrialising – China needs to be bolder.

The biggest reason for optimism is its ambitious plans for a carbon trading system. The world's second biggest economy is trialling seven carbon emissions trading schemes in cities and provinces across the nation, starting next year. Putting a price on carbon will make sequestering carbon dioxide financially attractive for IGCC plants, and could well out-price coal-to-liquid-fuel technology.

But perhaps most importantly, it will bind forever the economics of development and pollution in the rush to commercialise new energy technologies – rather than following the usual ”pollute now, pay later” trajectory of every other country. The world depends on China getting it right first time.

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