While we were sneering, China was seizing "clean coal."

By Lisa Margonelli

Making fun of clean coal has become a cottage industry for American enviro-media types. (For a classic example, check out this snarky ad by the Coen brothers.) But while we have been snickering, China is building a clean coal plant that will go online next year, and has two more in the works. Last year alone China built 90 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants, which means that if China decides to use its massive domestic market for carbon sequestration to develop cheap technology and processes (provided that's possible) they could capture an enormous world market for the equipment in a few decades.

In the US, clean coal has longer political legs more than economic ones, in part because of the way we play the politics of energy and greenhouse gases. America's Clean Coal experiment is FutureGen, a much talked-about coal plant which was supposed to sequester its carbon emissions. FutureGen, though, has always been a political creature, designed to delay limits on greenhouse gas emissions by coal fired power plants by promising a far off clean coal utopia. Here's an interesting quote from  Kenneth Green at the American Enterprise Institute on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS): "It's the universal fig leaf. For people who want to say they're not against coal when they really are, they hold up CCS. If CCS works, then coal is fine," Green said. "If you are a coal supporter, it lets you say to your coal people, 'I know you're going to get hit by cap and trade, but we're going to give you CCS. It's going to protect you, more or less.'"

 Even the Bush administration had a hard time keeping a straight face, and so they stopped signing the checks for FutureGen. Recently, the Obama administration rescued FutureGen, and with a group of power companies the $1.6 billion project is now on track, sort of, to have some kind of plan-like thing ready by 2010.

When energy and technology projects are driven by short-term political considerations rather than more substantial economic or strategic ones, tax payers waste money (and market opportunities) with this on again off again pattern of support. By comparison, a number of long standing oil carbon capture and sequestration projects have been going profitably in the US for years. A few years ago the oil company BP talked about building about a for-profit project at its Carson refinery that reportedly was almost twice the size of FutureGen. (That project is now re-structuring.)

And in the meantime, China has become a frontrunner, skillfully leveraging domestic and foreign expertise, funds, (and worry!) to get three plants started. The plant near Tianjin is already partly built, and the first of its three phases of construction will be complete this year. International capital clearly sniffs where the action is and  BP has opened a CCS collaboration center in Shanghai. The IEA, meanwhile, is congratulating China as a leader in the field.

In the US, it's time for everyone to leave behind the snarky politics of clean coal and get to work.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/06/while-we-were-sneering-china-was-seizing-clean-coal/20048/