The inevitable rise of Chinese clean coal

One truth that few people watching the energy space seem to grasp is that the world will not shift away from its absolute dependence on coal any time soon — certainly not in the first half of this century, and probably not in the second, either. Coal provides half the U.S. electricity supply, and an ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

One truth that few people watching the energy space seem to grasp is that the world will not shift away from its absolute dependence on coal any time soon -- certainly not in the first half of this century, and probably not in the second, either. Coal provides half the U.S. electricity supply, and an even higher percentage of China's. Cleaner natural gas can and will provide a sharply growing percentage of the fuel needed to produce electricity, and more nuclear power plants will be built. But coal's advantages -- its plenitude, its cost, its carbon density -- all put it leagues ahead of the competition. Therefore, for those concerned about a rise in ground temperatures because of the increase in carbon dioxide levels, coal -- the dirtiest of the fossil fuels -- must be cleaned up.

As it turns out, China, which recently surpassed the United States as the biggest carbon dioxide polluter on the planet, is engaged in a typically gigantic enterprise to accomplish just that. In concert with experts from the United States and elsewhere, China is rolling out experimental coal-burning plants which, their managers hope, will eventually allow them to trap or sequester carbon, or to gasify coal instead of burning it, on a massive scale.

One truth that few people watching the energy space seem to grasp is that the world will not shift away from its absolute dependence on coal any time soon — certainly not in the first half of this century, and probably not in the second, either. Coal provides half the U.S. electricity supply, and an even higher percentage of China’s. Cleaner natural gas can and will provide a sharply growing percentage of the fuel needed to produce electricity, and more nuclear power plants will be built. But coal’s advantages — its plenitude, its cost, its carbon density — all put it leagues ahead of the competition. Therefore, for those concerned about a rise in ground temperatures because of the increase in carbon dioxide levels, coal — the dirtiest of the fossil fuels — must be cleaned up.

As it turns out, China, which recently surpassed the United States as the biggest carbon dioxide polluter on the planet, is engaged in a typically gigantic enterprise to accomplish just that. In concert with experts from the United States and elsewhere, China is rolling out experimental coal-burning plants which, their managers hope, will eventually allow them to trap or sequester carbon, or to gasify coal instead of burning it, on a massive scale.

There: In 210 words we have synthesized James Fallows’s 8,157-word opus gracing the cover of next month’s Atlantic. Not to be snarky — you can read the whole thing if you wish — but that is basically the entire story.

Here are a couple of added snippets that were interesting, both from David Mohler, Duke Energy’s chief technology officer. Mohler describes how his company, lacking the ability to road test its ideas in the highly regulated United States, finds synergies in China, which can and does roll out gargantuan new enterprises in the blink of an eye: “We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.” Mohler also riffs on the scale of future energy demand that is driving China’s clean-coal research:

We learned that China is preparing, by 2025, for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t exist now. 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.”

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.