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No China Coal Peak in Sight: Carbon Capture Will be Necessary to Tame Emissions in this Century

Armond Cohen's picture
Clean Air Task Force

Armond Cohen is co-founder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, which he has led since its formation in 1996. In addition to leading CATF, Armond is actively involved in CATF...

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  • Feb 19, 2015 8:00 pm GMT

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In late 2014, China pledged to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030, and achieve 20% of its primary energy from non-fossil energy sources. And China continues to lead the world in annual additions of wind and solar power. While these developments are to be celebrated, there remains a sobering reality: they still leave a lot of headroom for China to expand its coal power plant capacity between now and 2030, even though its coal fleet is already more than twice the size of the US coal fleet.

Indeed, China’s march towards coal continued in 2014 as shown by data from the latest report from China’s National Energy Administration, which we present in chart form below:

bar graph: coal - 240271, Hydrogen - 65078, Wind - 67267, Nuclear - 41549, Solar - 13928

Source: CATF from China National Energy Administration website for GW, accessed 17 February 2014. Assumed capacity factors: fossil (58% per IEA WEO 2013); hydro (34% per IEA WEO 2013); wind (33%); solar (15%).

As you can see from the chart, despite additions of substantial wind, solar, and nuclear capacity, when properly adjusted for capacity factor (the amount of annual energy produced per unit of capacity) to reflect production capability, the amount of new coal energy added to the China grid last year exceeded new solar energy by 17 times, new wind energy by more than 4 times, and even new hydro by more than 3 times. And, despite having more than 30 new nuclear reactors under construction, China’s new nuclear capability was still a fraction of new coal energy.

[At first blush, this data seems to contradict recent reports that total China coal use fell in 2014 for the first time by about 2.5%. However, the two trends are not inconsistent. Half of China coal use is outside of the power sector, especially in heavy industry, which has reduced its coal use as exports fell in 2014 and government policies to remove subsidies from heavy industry took hold. Second, overall demand growth in the power sector reached a decade low but is expected to resume. Finally, 2014 was an exceptional hydro output year for China. The short-term blip does not undermine the general trend of continued upward trend in coal deployment in China’s power sector, which represents a growing share of China’s energy use].

Unfortunately for climate, these China 2014 coal additions – which in one year alone were double the size of the United Kingdom’s entire legacy coal fleet – will be around and cranking away for many decades, along with the rest of China’s coal fleet, most of which is less than 15 years old. Indeed, these plants can continue to pump CO2 out well into the second half of this century even with China’s pledged 2030 CO2 peak. And once in the atmosphere, those CO2 emissions will be warming the planet for many centuries to come.

The implications are clear for climate. In addition to rapidly increasing China’s adoption of non-fossil power sources such as renewables and nuclear, to mitigate long-lived CO2 emissions, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) must be applied to both new and existing China plants, both coal and gas. Full commercial scale projects in Canada and the US demonstrate that CCS is not a science project but is here today and works. But, as with all low carbon energy sources, we need to bring CCS costs down over time to accelerate deployment. That will require a steady commitment to early demonstration, commercialization and cost reductions through scaled deployment of CCS, as the world did for renewable energy. As several recent international reports suggest, without such an effort, we have little chance of successfully managing climate change in this century, or beyond.

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Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Feb 26, 2015

What do you do with CO2 once you’ve captured it?  Enhanced oil recovery (EOR) could use only a tiny fraction of the 2 billion tonnes that the US emits each year from coal power.  Even if the huge infrastructure to transport that much CO2 could be built, CO2 compressed to a supercritical state has to be hammered into rocks whose pore space is full of very salty brine.  Where would that displaced ocean of brine go?  The risk of salting the groundwater is not negligible, as energy experts seem to assume.

Earthquakes from injection wells are another unsolved problem for sequestration.  The earthquake risk is not negligible, and very likely a worse disaster than global warming.

 At the scale of 2 billion tonnes per year, sequestration looks fundamentally impractical, and attempts to make it work (like the recently punted FutureGen2 project in Illinois) are a waste of time and money.  Trying to extrapolate EOR experience to sequestration is an elementary error, as petroleum engineers (Ehlig-Economides, et al.) have pointed out, because EOR is an open system, and sequestration by definition (if it’s secure) is a closed system.  Secure storage in an open system is nonsense. 

Post-combustion CO2 capture by surface chemistry is another fundamentally wrong approach that could never work at a scale that would make an impact on global warming.

Amine sweetening, to remove CO2 from natural gas, is a mature technology (from the ’30s) but it can’t possibly scale from the oil field to what’s needed for a coal plant (5,000 tpd).  Water consumption would double.  Quenching the hot flue gas to 30-60C so the amine sorbents can work is possible but not economical.  Wet cooling at thermal power plants already consumes more fresh water than any other use, and doubling that waste of water during a drought is not a realistic plan. 

But the goal of mitigating global warming while developing the Chinese economy could be achieved by kinematic separation in the open von Karman geometry (for CO2 capture by stripping the nitrogen ballast) and CO2 cracking (by radial counterflow shear electrolysis).  CO2 cracking would take a lot of energy (about the same as water electrolysis) but that energy could come from wind at night, and the oxygen could be used for oxyfuel combustion.  The energy for cracking would be about the same as the energy for taking oxygen from the air using a conventional air separation unit.  The elemental carbon thus produced could be very useful carbon nanotubes. 


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Grace Adams on Mar 3, 2015

You are not opposed to energy storage–you just want to use batteries in EVs to store electricity instead of having electric utilities buy their own batteries.  Maybe it will make sense for electric utilities by buy EVs for their meter-reading vehicles and trucks with cherry-picker to maintain their distribution network.  That way they can charge those batteries during off hours and feed some electricity back into grid during peak management.  Connecticut has one nuclear power plant and two coal plants.  Most nights the nuclear power plant has to pay utility to take surplus power off its hands.  Nuclear power plants are so hard to turn off and back on again that their owners would rather pay utility to take surplus power at night than turn plant off and actually turn plant off only once a year for maintenance.  It might actually save nuclear power plant owner money to buy a utility size battery to put next to nuclear power plant to hold surplus power generated in wee hours of morning to sell during afternoon and/or early evening when rates are at their highest.  I believe energy storage with a smart electric grid will be useful for improving efficiency by reducing amount of excess power generation needed to meet actual peak demand instead of guessing based on weather forecasts.

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