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Maggie Koerth-Baker
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy.
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Henry Jacoby
Henry Jacoby is an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, where he helps lead MIT’s research and analysis of national climate policies and the structure of the international climate regime.
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China's coal dependence
China is still heavily reliant on coal, despite investments in renewable energy sources like solar and hydropower. Reporter Jocelyn Ford takes us to a coal gasification plant outside of Beijing where one Chinese company is attempting to make coal cleaner.
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Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.

Host Madeline Brand: On the other side of the world, China is the world leader in building wind farms and other forms of renewable energy. But, still, renewables are just a tiny fraction of its overall electricity supply. It has already surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. That’s because it uses so much coal. China’s drive to make coal cleaner has implications for U.S. and for global power companies. Jocelyn Ford reports.

Jocelyn Ford: Until about ten years ago, these were the guys who kept Beijingers warm in winter, and delivered fuel for cooking.

Thousands of vendors pedaled their three-wheeled carts down Beijing’s narrow lanes. They’d sell you round coal briquettes the size of coffee tins, by the hundreds. But in recent years, business is down.

Too many people died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Besides, the leaky household stoves are inefficient. And the briquettes belched sooty, throat-burning pollution that turned clothes black.

Despite the banner headlines this year about Beijing's pollution being off the charts, China's actually made progress in some areas by reducing the use of these stinky briquettes and hooking up more homes to city gas.

China’s burgeoning middle class stir fries on gas burners. Even in the price-conscious slums gas stoves and electric heaters are replacing coal.

But, China's energy demand is still growing by leaps and bounds, and the country’s not abandoning black gold anytime soon.

Ming Sung is China representative for the U.S. Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit that promotes low-carbon energy.

He says: "China don't have the luxury of gas like the U.S. do. China don’t have much oil either. The only thing they got is coal.”

And lots of it…

“70 percent plus of their energy come from coal. We hope they will transition away from coal, but that transition is gonna take decades. Many decades to come,” Sung continues. 

In the meantime, China is building coal plants at a ferocious pace -- equivalent to several a month. The newer plants use cleaner technology, but they still belch massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And that’s a concern to the Chinese government.

Zhou Xizhou, an energy analyst with the global energy consultancy IHS-Cera, says: "The past five years in China among the government agencies and officials there has not been any disagreement on the fact that carbon dioxide is causing changes to the climate, and that climate change is a serious threat. The question is how we are going to deal with that.”

One way is by subsidizing and promoting development of new, cleaner coal technologies. There’s a lot of research underway all across China.

A research lab 45 minutes outside of Beijing belongs to ENN, one of China’s up-and-coming private energy companies. Catherine Chi gave me a guided tour. We started with a technology that turns carbon dioxide into something useful - if a bit odiferous. 

Its seashore smell is from fast-growing algae swooshing around in salt water.

Catherine Chi points to the bubbles: “Can you see those bubbles? They are CO2. So those algae eat CO2.” 

It turns out that after the algae eat the CO2, people can eat the algae. But, that’s not all. Chi then points to algae sludge, which can be used for cooking and eventually biodiesel.

Instead of burying CO2 – which is costly and risky – the global warming gas is being turned into animal feed, or even fuel oil.

The company expects this technology will be ready to harvest in about three years. Though it’s not a silver bullet that will eliminate all carbon dioxide, it could be one of the solutions. 

The next stop on our tour was a test site for gasifying coal without ever removing it from the ground.

So as long as you have the right kind of coal, there is no need for dirty, dangerous mines. No need to recover the land later. 

“It’s like oil drilling technology,” says ENN’s R&D President Zhu Zhenqi. “You drill holes horizontally and you set up gasification underground. And, so the surface won’t be destroyed. You can still grow your corn and soybeans there.”

The beauty of coal gasification is that, instead of burning to release energy, the process depends heavily on chemical reactions. The result is called syngas, which is mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The process generates fewer pollutants, and the carbon dioxide can be captured and stored. Or in the case of ENN, fed to algae.

Energy analyst Zhou Xizhou says coal gets a bad rap as being dirty, because it isn’t new, it isn’t sexy, and it’s black and dusty: “It can really be as clean as you want to make it. It can be as clean as wind and solar.”

Of course, there’s a catch.

“The more pollutants you want to get rid of the higher the cost. So then there is a trade off between how clean you want it to be, and when can you expect it to be actually competitive. Someone really needs to foot the bill. You need to demonstrate the economics also make sense,” he continues.

That’s where China comes into play. It’s willing to spend.  

Luca Mancuso came to Beijing to do a workshop for Chinese engineers scouring the globe for the best, clean coal technologies. He’s with the Milano-based engineering company Foster Wheeler.

“What we are seeing overall in the world is the number of projects in the world are decreasing because many projects have been canceled. There are problems because of this financial crisis in the world,” says Mancuso.

So global players are flocking to China, to sell their technology, or in the case of America’s largest power generator, Duke Energy, to learn and share best practices. In the past five years the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company has forged more than two dozen partnerships with Chinese counterparts. David Mohler is vice president of emerging technology.

“They keep working on newer, cleaner technologies, so the hope is that they will actually be able to commercialize clean technologies sooner than we will in the U.S. and that we can learn from for the benefit of our customers,” says Mohler.

In the U.S., there’s no incentive to invest in these technologies.

Mohler continues: “In the U.S. we have no carbon legislation, we have no price on CO2 today. So, to make a sound economic argument that we should be investing in technologies that would reduce CO2, there is no return on your investment today." 

But Mohler, whose partners include ENN, doesn’t want to be left out of the clean coal game.

He believes at some point, the U.S. will require reductions in CO2 emissions. And, when it does, his experience in China will help Duke Energy make smarter decisions on the best way to do it. That’s why he’s even imported some of ENN’s algae to grow on top of one of his Kentucky power plants. 

Reported for America Abroad by Jocelyn Ford. 

Global Energy and Innovations / Produced by Jocelyn Ford, Curt Nickish, Bianca Vazquez Toness and A.C. Valdez / Edited by Martha Little with additional production help from Flawn Williams / Web Producer: Philippa Levenberg / Photos via Flickr: pjmixer; djwtwo and AP photos: Bettmann/Corbis and Ajit Solanki.

Host: Madeline Brand/ Length: 51 minutes / Airdate: April 2013

This show was made possible through the generous support of Qatar Foundation International and the Stuart Family Foundation.

Click here to read a report on this show by our Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, in response to the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting article published May 31, 2013.

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