Dirty Coal, Clean Future

To environmentalists, “clean coal” is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal—dirty, sooty, toxic coal—in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible. China is now the leader in this area, the Google and Intel of the energy world. If we are serious about global warming, America needs to work with China to build a greener future on a foundation of coal. Otherwise, the clean-energy revolution will leave us behind, with grave costs for the world’s climate and our economy.

The Technical Challenge

What would progress on coal entail? The proposals are variations on two approaches: ways to capture carbon dioxide before it can escape into the air and ways to reduce the carbon dioxide that coal produces when burned. In “post-combustion” systems, the coal is burned normally, but then chemical or physical processes separate carbon dioxide from the plume of hot flue gas that comes out of the smokestack. Once “captured” as a relatively pure stream of carbon dioxide, this part of the exhaust is pressurized into liquid form and then sold or stored. Refitting an existing coal plant can be very costly. “It’s like trying to remodel your home into a mansion,” a coal-plant manager told me in Beijing. “It’s more expensive, and it’s never quite right.” Apart from research projects, only two relatively small coal-fired power plants now operate in America with post-combustion capture.

Designing a capture system into a plant from the start is cheaper than doing refits. But even then the “parasitic load” of energy required to treat, compress, and otherwise handle the separated stream of carbon dioxide can come to 30 percent or more of the total output of a coal-fired power plant—so even more coal must be burned (and mined and shipped) to produce the same supply of electricity. Without mandatory emission limits or carbon prices, burning coal more cleanly is inevitably more expensive than simply burning coal the old way. “When people like me look for funding for carbon capture, the financial community asks, ‘Why should we do that now?’” an executive of a major American electric utility told me. “If there were a price on carbon”—a tax on carbon-dioxide emissions—“you could plug in, say, a loss of $30 to $50 per ton, and build a business case.”

“Pre-combustion” systems are fundamentally more efficient. In them, the coal is treated chemically to produce a flammable gas with lower carbon content than untreated coal. This means less carbon dioxide going up the smokestack to be separated and stored.

Either way, pre- or post-, the final step in dealing with carbon is “sequestration”—doing something with the carbon dioxide that has been isolated at such cost and effort, so it doesn’t just escape into the air. Carbon dioxide has a surprisingly large number of small-scale commercial uses, starting with adding the sparkle to carbonated soft drinks. (This is not a big help on the climate front, since the carbon dioxide is “sequestered” only until you pop open the bottle’s top.) All larger-scale, longer-term proposals for storing carbon involve injecting it deep underground, into porous rock that will trap it indefinitely. In the right geological circumstances, the captured carbon dioxide can even be used for “enhanced oil recovery,” forcing oil out of the porous rock into which it is introduced and up into wells.

These efforts are in one way completely different from “advanced research and development” as we often conceive of it, and in another way very much the same. They are different in that the scientists and entrepreneurs involved do not seem to count on, or even hope for, the large breakthroughs we have come to assume in biological sciences and info-tech. Consistent with two centuries of incremental improvement in power systems since the time of James Watt, practical refinements and ever-improving efficiency are the goal. They are similar in the operational advantage conferred by doing. Because Google indexes more data and handles more queries than any competitor, it can more quickly determine which innovations are succeeding (News, Translate, Earth, Maps) and which are failing (Wave), and exactly how the promising products still need to be improved. The first million copies of each new chip that Intel produces help it debug the production process, so that subsequent millions are cheaper and increasingly defect-free. “Whenever you scale something up, there are always differences from what you planned,” an engineer from a major American technology company told me. “It’s never quite the same. China is building plants like mad, so they can afford to experiment. We are not.”

In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me.

“In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,” a U.S. government official who works in China said. “Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese.

“You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,” the official added. “The energy demand is going like this”—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—“and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.”

The good aspects of this partnership have unfolded at a quickening pace over the past decade, through a surprisingly subtle and complex web of connections among private, governmental, and academic institutions in both countries. Perhaps I should say unsurprisingly, since the relationships among American and Chinese organizations in the energy field in some ways resemble the manufacturing supply chains that connect factories in China with designers, inventors, and customers in the United States and elsewhere. The difference in this case is how much faster the strategic advantage seems to be shifting to the Chinese side.

In the normal manufacturing supply chain—Apple creating computers, Walmart outsourcing clothes and toys—the United States provides branding, design, and a major market for products, while China supplies labor, machines, and the ability to turn concepts into products at very high speed. In the quest for cleaner coal, America’s contribution is mainly “soft power”—advice, coordination, prodding, and expertise—in hopes of influencing what Chinese organizations do.

Ten years ago, at the end of the Clinton administration, the Chinese and American governments signed a “Fossil Energy Protocol,” to coordinate research on better use of coal and oil. Political leaders have come and gone since then, but the cast of technicians, civil servants, and business officials on each side has been relatively stable and has gotten used to working together. After taking office as secretary of energy last year, Steven Chu—a celebrity in China because of his Chinese heritage and his Nobel Prize—gave a new push to these efforts, hiring additional staff members for the U.S.-China office and committing $75 million to a joint Clean Energy Research Center.

The efforts of two scientists we’ve already met, Julio Friedmann and Ming Sung, illustrate what Americans can and cannot do to shape what happens in China—and the mounting advantages on China’s side relative to America’s.

Friedmann, who is in his mid-40s, has become one of the world’s experts on sequestration: how and where carbon dioxide can safely be stored underground. He was trained in geology at MIT and the University of Southern California and initially went to work for ExxonMobil. But by the early 2000s he had become fascinated with the emerging science of underground carbon-dioxide storage. “At that point, it was clear that nearly all of the really cool work was being done in the national labs,” he told me. In 2004 he and his family moved from Maryland to California, where he joined Lawrence Livermore. He is now the head of the Carbon Management Program there and the technical leader of a government-university-business consortium that this summer won a Department of Energy competition to help develop carbon-sequestration projects in China. To give an idea of the consortium’s range, it includes three universities, three national laboratories, two scientific nongovernmental organizations, and six large corporations, among them General Electric, Duke Energy, and AEP.

After talking with Friedmann many times in China, I finally asked about the ethnic derivation of his name. His grandparents were Ashkenazim from Poland and Hungary who left for Latin America in the 1930s; his parents, raised in Colombia and Venezuela, met on an arranged date at Grossinger’s in the Catskills. Although Friedmann bikes to work through the bucolic Northern California setting of the Lawrence Livermore lab—a setting punctuated by the watchtowers and electrified fencing that surround the plutonium stockpile for the lab’s weapons-research center—he comes across as a fast-talking, high-pressure East Coast urban type.

In many meetings in America and China in the past two years, I have seen him turn that intensity to one great question: how quickly geologists from America and elsewhere can work with their counterparts in China to improve systems for pumping carbon dioxide underground, and to identify the right rock formations where it can safely be stored. On a typical trip to China, he will spend half his time in Beijing or Shanghai, meeting with government and corporate officials—and the other half in Xi’an or the Inner Mongolian wilderness, where many of the most promising storage locations are found. What he and his team have to offer, from the American part of the supply chain, is expertise on geological formations, on computer models for how the “plume” of liquefied carbon dioxide will settle into porous rock, and on other benefits of America’s decades of experience in petroleum geology. He can also put Chinese plant managers, scientists, and bureaucrats in touch with overseas counterparts they would otherwise never meet. “Projects like these are sort of like the school dance,” he told me. “You’re not getting married, but you’re figuring out how to interact. We need to start the process in a way that gives people the confidence to do it again, and again, and again. The confidence is the product.” The more often Chinese and foreign officials work together, the more easily they continue to work together. This might sound trivial, but I’ve become convinced that the steady expansion of these contacts will make a major difference in how an ever more powerful China deals with the rest of the world. What does Friedmann, or the United States, get from the process? “More tons sequestered, rather than emitted, in China,” he told me. But also something unavailable in America: a chance to see new technology in new plants and learn how it works. “In the U.S. today, there is not a single demonstration of capturing CO2 from a coal-fired plant at large scale,” he said. “The technologies have been a little too expensive to actually implement. That’s why we started looking at China.” They can afford to build, and Americans can hope to watch and learn.

Ming Sung’s role illustrates a similar balance of influence and knowledge between the United States and China. Sung, who is in his early 60s, was born in Shanghai and raised there and in Hong Kong, where his family fled in 1958. Ten years later he came to the United States for college and graduate studies in geology. He became a U.S. citizen, worked in the newly formed Department of Energy during the Carter administration, and then left for a 25-year career around the world as an executive with Shell Oil. After he retired from Shell and founded a software company, he and his wife decided to move back to China. He now works in Beijing for a Boston-based nonprofit environmental group called the Clean Air Task Force. (Disclosure: my sister is on the board.)

In the early 2000s the task force, originally a conventional anti-air-pollution group, embraced the necessity of cleaning up coal. In Beijing, Sung gave me a copy of its latest working paper, in both Chinese and English, called “Coal Without Carbon.”

The group has sponsored research on sequestration, on post-combustion capture, and on the “cleanest” of the emerging pre-combustion coal technologies—“underground coal gasification.” In this process, jets of air (or pure oxygen), sometimes with steam or various chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. They interact chemically with the coal to produce a gas that flows back up a pipe and can be burned. It leaves in the ground much of the carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, and other elements that create greenhouse gases and other pollutants when coal is burned.

“And this can be very cheap,” Sung told me. “You don’t have to mine the coal. You don’t have to send men underground or haul coal around or dispose of ash. All the dirty stuff stays buried.” Because of these and other savings, he said, coal used this way could match or beat the price of today’s standard dirty power plant.

But in advocating the whole range of “clean coal” technologies, Sung and his team have the same problem Julio Friedmann has with carbon sequestration: it’s not happening in the United States. There’s one significant exception: the Texas Clean Energy Project, a plant being built outside Odessa, which will apply underground-gasification technology to capture 90 percent of its carbon, more than any other commercial plant in the world. It received a $450 million federal award, just over half from the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative and the rest from the American Recovery and Reinvestment stimulus program (toward the $2.1 billion total capital cost). If it works as promised, this facility will be an advance over any coal-fired plant operating anywhere: it will gasify coal underground, eliminating the cost and damage of mining; it will sell urea (for fertilizer) and other chemical by-products of the underground gasification; and it will use the captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery in the nearby Permian Basin oil fields—all in addition to generating power. [Correction: The decarbonization and other cleanup steps that make this plant distinctive are done above rather than underground. For full details, see texascleanenergyproject.com/about-tcep.] But otherwise, to see new technology in action and to influence the next dozen coal plants being built in the world, Ming Sung had to go back to China.

“For the last 30 years, we have not been able to build a coal-to-gas conversion plant in this country,” a U.S. coal-company official told me. “China has done many. That is what we need to learn from them, all that production and operating experience.” And in exchange? “We do have safety and environmental information that we can definitely provide.”

Ten years ago, the United States and many other countries set joint targets of building a series of experimental low- emissions, high-efficiency coal-fired power plants: FutureGen in America, ZeroGen in Australia, various European efforts without a “Gen” name, and GreenGen in China. America’s FutureGen was proposed early, and China’s GreenGen was proposed late. Now—surprise!—GreenGen is closest to being completed, with its scheduled opening moved up from 2015 to 2013, and FutureGen has only recently begun to move beyond the congressional-wrangling stage.

What Sung takes from the interaction is both operational knowledge and the chance to influence China’s decisions in some way. What he has provided is another sort of connection, between Chinese organizations and the private businesses that mine coal and generate electricity in the United States. “That is the reason we are here—to get companies together,” Sung said. “It is taking too long for governments to agree on policies, so we believe in B-to-B connections.” At a crucial point, he arranged a meeting in Beijing between the CEO of Duke Energy, Jim Rogers, and Zhang Guobao, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, essentially China’s director of industrial policy. “After the meeting, Zhang said, ‘I fully support this collaboration,’” Sung told me. “With that sentence, what more could you ask for?”

Duke got serious about China only two and a half years ago, after Rogers, the CEO, took his grandson on a trip there in the summer of 2008 as a high-school graduation present. The elder Rogers, like so many first-time visitors, was stunned by the scale and dynamism of what he saw. He immediately urged his senior management team to learn about and visit China. “There is something you can’t sense from your office in America,” the director of Duke’s China operations, a 30-year-old woman named River Lu, told me. She grew up in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. “Here you feel the pollution, you feel the growth, you feel the energy.” (Her Chinese name is Lu Yun; she chose the English name “River” in her teens. The creativity and often beauty of these chosen names is a dependable pleasure of meeting young English-speaking Chinese.) Although she did not leave China until her mid-20s, for graduate work at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, she has a native-American accent, which she says comes from watching Friends and Ally McBeal on Hong Kong TV.

David Mohler, Duke’s chief technology officer, was one of the first visitors and most frequent return travelers. “We learned that China is preparing, by 2025, for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t exist now,” he told me. “They have to build the equivalent of the U.S. electrical system”—that is, almost as much added capacity as the entire U.S. grid—“by 2025. It took us 120 years.” Rogers, Mohler, and the company as a whole moved quickly from being impressed or frightened by Chinese growth to determining how they could work with it.

“We realized there was no way we could duplicate their speed, the scale, or the constancy of energy policy within the United States,” Mohler said. “So we wondered if we could find Chinese partners to work with in applying these clean technologies, so we could bring the benefits of their speed and scale back to the United States.” In his speeches and interviews, Rogers frequently emphasizes that by 2050, Duke will need to replace or rebuild every one of its existing power plants in the United States, except for its hydroelectric facilities. Some, because of age; the rest, to meet what Duke considers to be inevitably tightening clean-energy standards. “We will have a huge need for capital,” Mohler said. Duke’s capital budget for the next three years is $18 billion, and only in China can the company find that plus the operational experience of seeing cleaner-coal technologies as they are deployed. Duke Energy supported the Obama administration’s now-abandoned climate bill, because it would have added predictability to the future standards the company will have to meet. With or without a bill, it is looking to China for future financing.

Within months of Rogers’s first visit, Duke had opened an office in China, headed by River Lu. Within a year of the visit, in the summer of 2009, Duke signed an agreement for joint research with China’s largest energy company, Huaneng, and with the government’s Thermal Power Research Institute. Within the clean-energy world, the institute’s director of technology, Xu Shisen, is a celebrity known for his advocacy of clean-coal projects. Huaneng has bought a share in a new low-emissions Duke plant in Edwardsport, Indiana. [Correction: The Memorandum of Understanding between Duke and Huaneng, which involves employees of each company visiting the other’s plants and sharing information and research, does not include direct investment by Huaneng. Duke has a joint-venture understanding with another Chinese company, the ENN group, toward developing merchant solar panel plants in the United States.]

“As China meets its capacity, it is likely that the best technologies will be commercialized and applied here faster than anywhere else,” River Lu said. “We want to be involved in that process.”

China’s cooperation with the United States on coal is good news for the world. If the two countries had decided to make this another arena for demonstrating their respective toughness—if, as at the failed Copenhagen talks last winter, they had mainly exchanged accusations about who was more to blame for emissions problems—they would have guaranteed that the problems could not be solved. If that cooperation breaks down, Julio Friedmann said, “we’ll end up paying twice as much to get the same learnings—and delaying the technology on both sides by another decade.” Both sides seem to have looked for ways to keep the cooperation going. They have not been in the newspapers, but they deserve recognition for attempting to do the world’s work.

But China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct.

The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.

The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will.

“The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems.

“No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else,” Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official who now writes the blog Climate Progress, told me. “It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.”

The Chinese system as a whole has great weaknesses as well as great strengths. Its challenges, as I have reported so often in these pages, make the threats facing America look trivial by comparison. But its response to the energy challenge—including its commitment to dealing with the dirty, unavoidable reality of coal—reveals a seriousness about facing big problems that America now appears to lack.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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