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.