Decarbonizing King Coal: Growing U.S.-China Clean Technology Cooperation

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The U.S. and China are the world's largest consumers of coal and the incentive for the two countries to cooperate on decarbonizing coal power plants is great, for not only does the development of cleaner power plants control greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, but they also create new green jobs. At this May 12th China Environment Forum event speakers from the Clean Air Task Force, Center for American Progress, and Future Fuels, LLC discussed their respective roles in the interplay between the U.S. and China's green markets. The three speakers emphasized that while averting catastrophic climate impacts is a fine motivator, decarbonizing the power sector potentially has multi-trillion dollar financial benefits for both countries. As both the United States and China plan to use coal as a significant source of energy for decades to come, much of the discussion recently has been focused on figuring out how to lower the carbon emissions of coal power plants, specifically with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

To start off the talk, Julian Wong of the Center for American progress gave a brief overview on the motivations, benefits, and challenges in the global clean energy markets. According to Mr. Wong, the classic Chinese model of technology development has been "import, assimilation, and improvement," most notably in auto and telecommunication sectors. Now China is taking on the task of innovating and investing in the green sector with a specific focus on carbon reduction technologies. Chinese companies are leading the world in production and export of solar panels and China's advances in high-speed trains are making it a global leader. Many people have supposed that China's entry into this market will mean a financial loss for the rest of the world, but Julian Wong made the point that there is a lot of room in this market. Notably, many green energy products in China—such as wind turbines—include U.S.-made content. Thus, both countries stand to benefit. Moreover, the green tech market is a potential multi-trillion dollar market, larger than any one country itself.

While China has been drawing considerable international investment into clean energy technology production and research, Ming Sung of the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) discussed how such investment is not exclusively a one-way street with China dominating the market. CATF is a unique nonprofit NGO that promotes scientific research, public education, and advocacy to restore clean air and healthy environments and its main work is to encourage innovative business-to-business connections around clean coal technologies. Ming Sung stated that CATF feels that the largest issue is coal, as 50 percent of the electricity in the United States and 78 percent in China is generated by coal. Thus, CCS technology needs to be developed in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. However in order to incentivize the transition to CCS, Ming Sung suggested that we the United States and China first support CCUS—carbon capture utilization and then sequestration. Albeit limited, CO2 does have industrial and profitable applications and sourcing industrial CO2 from power plants would facilitate the infrastructure and technology that can eventually be applied for full-scale CO2 sequestration. The CATF tries to facilitate not only U.S. investment in China, but also Chinese investment in U.S. technology in order to advance overall CCS development. Mr. Sung used a newly developed CCS plant in Good Spring, Pennsylvania as an example of CATF's facilitation goals.

As a beneficiary of CATF's business-to-business matchmaking, Albert Lin of Future Fuels LLC, concluded the talk by emphasizing that the United States and China can further aid the development of CCS by cooperating on concrete projects. Future Fuels LLC is a particularly apt case-in-point as one of its current projects building a CCS-ready IGCC power plant in Good Springs, Pennsylvania. The power plant, which can capture 90 percent of its CO2, is built using licensed technology licensed and developed in China. Albert Lin stated that it was China's ability to develop technology quickly and at scale that made the choice for selecting a Chinese technology for the Good Springs plant economically and practically viable.

It was stressed throughout the presentation that for both countries coal is and will continue to be a significant source of power and carbon emissions. With their respective comparative advantages, China and the United States are in a position to help facilitate the development and implementation of CCS technology for both economic and global climate benefits.