The New York Times
May 11, 2009
China Emerges as a Leader in Cleaner Coal Technology
By KEITH BRADSHER
TIANJIN, China China s frenetic construction of coal-fired power
plants has raised worries around the world about the effect on climate
change. China now uses more coal than the United States, Europe and
Japan combined, making it the world s largest emitter of gases that
are warming the planet.
But largely missing in the hand-wringing is this: China has emerged in
the past two years as the world s leading builder of more efficient,
less polluting coal power plants, mastering the technology and driving
down the cost.
While the United States is still debating whether to build a more
efficient kind of coal-fired power plant that uses extremely hot
steam, China has begun building such plants at a rate of one a month.
Construction has stalled in the United States on a new generation of
low-pollution power plants that turn coal into a gas before burning
it, although Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday that the Obama
administration might revive one power plant of this type. But China
has already approved equipment purchases for just such a power plant,
to be assembled soon in a muddy field here in Tianjin.
The steps they ve taken are probably as fast and as serious as
anywhere in power-generation history, said Hal Harvey, president of
ClimateWorks, a group in San Francisco that helps finance projects to
limit global warming.
Western countries continue to rely heavily on coal-fired power plants
built decades ago with outdated, inefficient technology that burn a
lot of coal and emit considerable amounts of carbon dioxide. China has
begun requiring power companies to retire an older, more polluting
power plant for each new one they build.
Cao Peixi, the president of the China Huaneng Group, the country s
biggest state-owned electric utility and the majority partner in the
joint venture building the Tianjin plant, said his company was
committed to the project even though it would cost more than
We shouldn t look at this project from a purely financial
perspective, he said. It represents the future.
Without doubt, China s coal-fired power sector still has many
problems, and global warming gases from the country are expected to
continue increasing. China s aim is to use the newest technologies to
limit the rate of increase.
Only half the country s coal-fired power plants have the emissions
control equipment to remove sulfur compounds that cause acid rain, and
even power plants with that technology do not always use it. China has
not begun regulating some of the emissions that lead to heavy smog in
Even among China s newly built plants, not all are modern. Only about
60 percent of the new plants are being built using newer technology
that is highly efficient, but more expensive.
With greater efficiency, a power plant burns less coal and emits less
carbon dioxide for each unit of electricity it generates. Experts say
the least efficient plants in China today convert 27 to 36 percent of
the energy in coal into electricity. The most efficient plants achieve
an efficiency as high as 44 percent, meaning they can cut global
warming emissions by more than a third compared with the weakest
In the United States, the most efficient plants achieve around 40
percent efficiency, because they do not use the highest steam
temperatures being adopted in China. The average efficiency of
American coal-fired plants is still higher than the average efficiency
of Chinese power plants, because China built so many inefficient
plants over the past decade. But China is rapidly closing the gap by
using some of the world s most advanced designs.
After relying until recently on older technology, China has since
become the major world market for advanced coal-fired power plants
with high-specification emission control systems, the International
Energy Agency said in a report on April 20.
China s improvements are starting to have an effect on climate models.
In its latest annual report last November, the I.E.A. cut its forecast
of the annual increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases,
to 3 percent from 3.2 percent, in response to technological gains,
particularly in the coal sector, even as the agency raised slightly
its forecast for Chinese economic growth. It s definitely changing
the baseline, and that s being taken into account, said Jonathan
Sinton, a China specialist at the energy agency.
But by continuing to rely heavily on coal, which supplies 80 percent
of its electricity, China ensures that it will keep emitting a lot of
carbon dioxide; even an efficient coal-fired power plant emits twice
the carbon dioxide of a natural gas-fired plant.
Perhaps the biggest question now is how much further China can go
beyond the recent steps. In particular, how fast will it move toward
power plants that capture their emissions and store them underground
or under the seafloor?
That technology could, in theory, create power plants that contribute
virtually nothing to global warming. Many countries hope to develop
such plants, though progress has been halting; Energy Secretary Chu
has promised steps to speed up the technology in the United States.
China has just built a small, experimental facility near Beijing to
remove carbon dioxide from power station emissions and use it to
provide carbonation for beverages, and the government has a short list
of possible locations for a large experiment to capture and store
carbon dioxide. But so far, it has no plans to make this a national
China is making other efforts to reduce its global warming emissions.
It has doubled its total wind energy capacity in each of the past four
years, and is poised to pass the United States as soon as this year as
the world s largest market for wind power equipment. China is building
considerably more nuclear power plants than the rest of the world
combined, and these do not emit carbon dioxide after they are built.
But coal remains the cheapest energy source in China by a wide margin.
China has the world s third-largest coal reserves, after the United
States and Russia.
No matter how much renewable or nuclear is in the mix, coal will
remain the *** power source, said Ashok Bhargava, a China energy
expert at the Asian Development Bank in Manila.
Another problem is that China has finally developed the ability to
build high-technology power plants only at the end of a national binge
of building lower-tech coal-fired plants. Construction is now slowing
because of the economic slump.
By adopting ultra-supercritical technology, which uses extremely hot
steam to achieve the highest efficiency, and by building many
identical power plants at the same time, China has cut costs
dramatically through economies of scale. It now can cost a third less
to build an ultra-supercritical power plant in China than to build a
less efficient coal-fired plant in the United States.