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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Renewables Aren’t Enough. Clean Coal Is the Future



Coal supplies over 40 percent of global electricity needs, and that percentage is going up. The only real question is how to minimize the damage. 

Proof that good things don’t always come in nice packages can be found by taking the fast train from Beijing to Tianjin and then driving to the coast. Tianjin, China’s third-biggest city, originated as Beijing’s port on the Yellow Sea. But in recent years Tianjin has reclaimed so much of its muddy, unstable shoreline that the city has effectively moved inland and a new, crazily active port has sprung up at the water’s edge. In this hyper-industrialized zone, its highways choked with trucks, stand scores of factories and utility plants, each a mass of pipes, reactors, valves, vents, retorts, crackers, blowers, chimneys, and distillation towers—the sort of facility James Cameron might have lingered over, musing, on his way to film the climax of Terminator 2.

Among these edifices, just as big and almost as anonymous as its neighbors, is a structure called GreenGen, built by China Huaneng Group, a giant state-owned electric utility, in collaboration with half a dozen other firms, various branches of the Chinese government, and, importantly, Peabody Energy, a Missouri firm that is the world’s biggest private coal company.

By Western standards, GreenGen is a secretive place; weeks of repeated requests for interviews and a tour met with no reply. When I visited anyway, guards at the site not only refused admittance but wouldn’t even confirm its name. As I drove away from the entrance, a window blind cracked open; through the slats, an eye surveyed my departure. The silence, in my view, is foolish. GreenGen is a billion-dollar facility that extracts the carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant and, ultimately, will channel it into an underground storage area many miles away. Part of a coming wave of such carbon-eating facilities, it may be China’s—and possibly the planet’s—single most consequential effort to fight climate change.

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