Monday, May 11, 2009

What to do About Coal (II): Look Towards China?

Yesterday's posting called attention to a recent CBS News 60 minutes show regarding the use of coal to power a large percentage of American electricity generating facilities.

But of course the "challenge" associated with coal is how to reduce the carbon emissions associated with burning it. Until recently if one had suggested that American operators should look overseas, and to China in particular for some answers, the laugh would have been audible even over the Internet!

However, today's New York Times ("China Outpaces U.S. in Cleaner Coal-Fired Plants," May 11, 2009) reports that "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." The importance of this development cannot be understated since today China burns a greater amount of coal than Europe, Japan, and the U.S. combined.

According to the story, China is building one technologically advanced coal-fired power plant a month. Hal Harvey of Climateworks, a California based financier of projects aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions, put it this way: "The steps they've taken are probably as fast and as serious as anywhere in power-generation history."

The most sophisticated Chinese plants achieve a 44 percent efficiency compared to about 40 percent for similar U.S. plants. But this is a far cry from China's least efficient plants, which achieve efficiency in the range of the mid-20s to mid-30s in percentage terms.

Maybe the West needs to take a closer look at what the Chinese are doing. Will the next generation of American coal-fired plants be built with Chinese expertise?

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