Melanie Hart is a Senior Fellow and Director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress. Luke H. Bassett is the Associate Director of Domestic Energy and Environment Policy at the Center. Blaine Johnson is a China and Asia Policy Analyst at the Center.
In December 2016, the Center for American Progress brought a group of energy experts to China to find out what is really happening.
We visited multiple coal facilities—including a coal-to-liquids plant—and went nearly 200 meters down one of China’s largest mines to interview engineers, plant managers, and local government officials working at the front lines of coal in China.
We found that the nation’s coal sector is undergoing a massive transformation that extends from the mines to the power plants, from Ordos to Shanghai.
The nation is on track to overdeliver on the emissions reduction commitments it put forward under the Paris climate agreement, and making coal cleaner is an integral part of the process.
From a climate perspective, the ideal scenario would be for China to shut down all of its coal-fired power plants and switch over to clean energy full stop. In reality, China’s energy economy is a massive ship that cannot turn on a dime.
The shift toward renewables is happening: China’s Paris commitment includes a promise to install 800 gigawatts to 1,000 gigawatts of new renewable capacity by 2030, an amount equivalent to the capacity of the entire U.S. electricity system.
While China and the United States have roughly the same land mass, however, China has 1.3 billion people to the United States’ 325 million.
It needs an electricity system that is much larger, so adding the renewable equivalent of one entire U.S. electricity system is not enough to replace coal in the near to medium term.
To bridge the gap, China is rolling out new technologies to drastically reduce local air pollution and climate emissions from the nation’s remaining coal power plants.
A report issued last month by the International Energy Agency (IEA) identified air pollution as “one of the largest environmental health risks” facing Poles.
It also urged Warsaw to rethink its dependence on coal and focus instead on developing cleaner energy sources.
According to the IEA, coal accounted for 81 percent of Poland’s electricity generation in 2015 and the heavily indebted coal-mining sector—one of Europe’s largest—provided more than 100,000 politically sensitive jobs. Read more at: phys.org
In late 2015, report after report after report emerged showing that coal consumption on the global scale was headed for an impressive decline, and possibly that dependence on coal had peaked all over the world. For example, China, one of the largest consumers of coal on the planet, was rapidly decreasing their dependence on the fossil fuel, and when this decline was paired with declining reliance in other countries and here in the U.S., it made the coal industry significantly weaker…
Sincerest congratulations are due to COP21 (Conference of the Parties) for inking a remarkable agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees by 2050/2100
It’s a global achievement, one that saw 200 countries come together in a unified purpose to protect our Commons
By agreeing to unprecedented GHG emission targets at COP21 in Paris, world leaders have shown the man-made problems that we alone have created are not above our ability to solve
Our leaders are bigger than our problems — and that is a very comforting sign indeed!
We’ve Got Our CO2 Targets. Now What?
As laudatory as all of that sounds, it begs the question, “Now that we’ve agreed on strict GHG limits, how do we actually set about achieving those limits?”
Listed in the order of maximum effect, irrespective of convenience or cost, the following proposal must rank among the least costly ways to achieve our COP21 targets within the timeframe specified.
ONE: Eliminating coal-fired primary power generation by 2020
By far, coal-fired power generation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and aside from the obvious heavy CO2 load, many toxic gases are produced due to the impurities found in raw coal.
Not only that, but billions of dollars of damage to exterior metal and concrete occurs every year due to the effects of coal-fired acid rain hitting everything from bridges to skyscrapers to outdoor art installations.
Almost worse, is the heavy water usage (to control coal dust migration and to lower the burn temperature at coal-fired power generation facilities) which average 1100 gallons per MegaWatt(MW) of electricity produced.
For the record, natural gas-fired power generation requires 300 gallons of water per MW, while nuclear power generation uses 800 gallons of water per MW and solar power and wind power generators use 0 gallons per MW.
Another serious problem in regards to coal burning is the disposal of millions of tons of toxic fly ash, which is the ashes left over from burning millions of tons of coal annually.
Each year, millions of tons of toxic fly ash must be cooled, transported tens or hundreds of miles away, and then buried deep underground far from aquifers.
TWO: That’s not to say that the coal industry should die. Far from it. Some of the purest liquid fuels on the planet are already made from coal by employing the Fischer-Tropsch (catalytic) process. Such fuels are known as CTL fuels (Coal-to-Liquid) fuels and are noted for their almost clinical purity
Some countries, notably South Africa, have been blending the very clean-burning CTL fuel (30%) with conventional petroleum-sourced gasoline (70%) since the 1950′s in order to create an exceptionally clean burning gasoline (petrol) for use in cars and trucks. That mixture lowers CO2 and other GHG emissions by more than half with the potential for 50/50 CTL and gasoline blends in the future!
In addition to that, the aviation fuel ‘coal oil’ that is produced from South African coal — is purer and therefore, cleaner-burning than conventional petroleum-sourced ‘kerosene’ aviation fuel.
Over 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions are produced by general aviation. By switching to coal oil blended with conventional kerosene, global aviation emissions would drop by half, or better.
We could decrease our automotive and aviation emissions by half thanks to coal! and instead of witnessing the death of the coal industry, we would witness a coal renaissance!
THREE: All coal-fired power generation over 1MW should be switched to natural gas which upgrade is known as Coal to Gas (CTG). It’s already a mature business model in the U.S. where many coal-fired power plants have been converted to natural gas in order to meet increasingly stringent air quality standards
The benefits of this are quite obvious. All of the infrastructure is already in place to deliver the electricity from the existing power plant to demand centres.
Natural gas-fired power generation (thermal) operates similarly and can use the same facilities as coal-fired power generation.
Natural gas burns up to 1,000,000 times cleaner than lignite coal (brown coal) and up to 10,000 times cleaner than the highest quality black coal (anthracite coal).
The news gets even better for aquatic life as natural gas uses only 300 gallons per MW — and there is no dirty, black, coal-dust-laden water pouring into ditches, streams and rivers downstream from coal mines, coal-fired power stations, and along the thousands of miles of railway tracks that transport coal.
The bigger the natural gas market, the lower the per unit price for natural gas. Until now, natural gas-fired power generation has been used to add expensive ‘peaking power’ to the grid as it can ramp up quickly to provide additional power during peak demand sessions, such as happens when many air conditioning units suddenly switch on in the afternoon.
However, as more coal power stations have converted to natural gas, the (Henry Hub) spot price for natural gas has lowered accordingly. We’re now seeing natural gas prices falling to historic lows (under $2.00) due to increased baseload demand.
FOUR: As great as it is to add biofuel to transportation fuels in order to help them become (much) more clean-burning, all ethanol that is obtained *from corn* must be stopped by 2020
By a significant margin, corn is the worst plant to grow in order to produce biofuel due to the obscene water and pesticide use required to grow corn.
Corn must be replaced with a less demanding crop such as sugarcane. In Brazil, sugarcane is grown for sugar (primarily) and biofuel (secondarily) and the technology has advanced to the point where even the leaves and roots of the plant (the ‘stover’) are used to produce biofuel via the cellulosic biofuel method.
In Brazil, by law, a minimum of 24% of each gallon of gasoline must be bio-ethanol sourced. Costa Rica and some other Latin countries have advanced bio-ethanol programmes and likewise show corresponding drops in vehicle emissions.
Other crops, such as sweet sorghum are even more promising than sugarcane and are only a few years away from making a massive impact as an ethanol feedstock.
By banning corn for biofuel use and replacing it with sugarcane or sweet sorghum, water usage levels would fall by billions of gallons per state, annually. Pesticide use, land management and other environmentally costly processes would be dramatically minimized.
Every gallon of gasoline that is sold in the world should have a 50% biofuel or CTL component and it should be noted that CTL fuels are just as clean-burning as ethanol derived from biofuel crops such as sugarcane or sweet sorghum.
FIVE: The shipping industry produces over 2% of the world’s emissions only because old ships burn incredibly toxic bunker fuel — while newer ships burn clean natural gas. Regulating global shipping to upgrade to natural gas can dramatically lower emission levels across the industry
If these bunker-fuel-burning ships (‘old clunkers’) are no longer allowed in the world’s ports, they will be useless to their owners and will be sold for their scrap metal value.
By recognizing that our use of coal must change by 2020 we can employ natural gas in place of coal for our primary power generation — while adding CTL fuels and 2nd-generation biofuels to our transportation fuel — for a ‘cleaner burn’ to meet our electricity and transportation energy needs while easily meeting our GHG emission reduction goals.
COP21: Examining the case for nations to meet reasonable CO2 emission targets by adopting a two-track plan to lower CO2 emission levels, while still adhering to the longer-term INDC model as suggested by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and COP21.
Example: U.S.A. bans coal-burning by 2020
Conversion of all existing coal-fired power plants to natural gas (such conversions are now a mature industry)
CO2 emissions from those converted power stations would drop by half
Eliminating the non-CO2 pollutants and particulate emitted by coal burning — some of which are very toxic to humans, livestock, and agriculture, and damaging to exterior concrete and metal
A total solution to the fly ash disposal problem
Water usage falls from 1100 gallons per MW to 800 gallons per MW
As natural gas becomes a baseload energy, gas prices would stabilize
Healthcare costs would fall
Agriculture costs would fall
Infrastructure costs related to exterior concrete spalling and metal pitting would fall
More coal available for export
Significant progress towards tapering U.S. emission levels would occur by 2020 from a single (and simple) regulatory change.
All of the natural gas-fired power generation extant in America after 2020 would need to continue producing electricity (especially to provide power at night) as more solar and wind power capacity is added to the U.S. grid. Utility companies that invest in natural gas power plants prior to and even after 2020, could therefore be assured their investments would remain as an important partner in the primary energy generation mix.
In that way, the United States could facilitate relatively rapid progress on short term CO2 emission reduction targets/non-CO2 related externalities — and continue to work towards meeting the (long term and non-binding) DDPP targets that are fine-tunable over the coming decades.