Reality check for future of coal, China confirms massive 23 billion ton coal deposit

November 24 2008 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future
Category: Energy   Year: 2018   Rating: 4 Hot

While US activists prepare for a battle against the notion of ‘clean coal’, China’s coal industry continues to boom. A recent MIT report estimates that China’s power sector has been expanding at a rate roughly equivalent to three to four new coal-fired, 500 megawatt plants coming on line every week.

The real danger is not just the carbon emissions, but the wrong assumptions and perception that incremental solutions, protests, or stricter carbon regulations can somehow shift China’s current direction. Why worry?

The gap continues to widen between what activists want to happen with the global coal industry, versus the reality of coal’s expanding role as the world’s fastest growing source of energy.

Worse, is the misguided hope that cheap solar (which is coming 2015-2025!) can magically counter the existing growth trend lines for coal. Most of that solar power generation will just go to satisfy new demand, not take away from coal’s market share and prime access to national energy grids. If there is a viable solution for this reality, it must be algae or advanced bioenergy solutions that can scale and eat the emissions from the combustion of coal. We need carbon solutions, not just alternatives to coal.

What happened?
The People’s Daily Online reports that geologists have confirmed a massive 23 billion ton coal reserve deposit in the country’s Turfan Basin. ‘The coal mine occupies an area of over 300 square kilometers with a thickness of 169.69 meters, and a coal bearing ratio of 29%’. This is the second major reserve confirmed in the last six months.

That’s only the beginning! China does not appear to be limiting its reliance to coal on its own domestic supplies. Last week Reuters reported that China’s largest coal miner Shenhua Energy Co Ltd paid $187.4 million for a coal exploration license in Australia.

Another brutal fact? China now has the busiest coal port in the world.

Why is this important to the future of energy?

While oil geopolitics seem to gather most media attention, coal is an even more complicated piece of the energy puzzle – especially when it comes to climate change and carbon emissions.

China is hungry for energy. Oil, yes. But mostly electricity. And despite its potential to become a cleantech manufacturing hub, it is likely to rely primarily on coal for the next thirty years.

China’s coal industry is largely unregulated and lacks any evidence of industrial scale innovation or controls.

But even if the sector came under stricter controls, the nation is dealing with low grade supplies. The same MIT report reveals some startling insights about the poor ‘dirty’ quality of China’s vast coal supplies. MIT’s conclusion? The problem isn’t the coal plant technology, it is the poor quality of the coal.

Actually, use of coal is growing
The US Energy Information Agency Annual Report on 2008 reveals the brutal facts of coal’s use in the world’s energy sector.

Simply trying to solve the problem within one nation, does not address global climate issues. World forecasts show an increase in coal’s share of world energy consumption increases from 27 percent in 2005 to 29 percent in 2030.

The US is almost certain to confront the challenges of coal emissions, but no country is more important to this conversation than China. The US can probably absorb higher costs associated with cleaner uses of coal, but not China. As soon as the global economy comes out of this slump, China will once again fire up its coal plants.

The question now might be: Can we can lower costs and scale algae and bioenergy systems into retrofitted solutions?

Is it possible to change the direction of emissions by rethinking carbon as a resource for bioenergy, rather than a planetary liability?

Related posts on The Energy
Could US algae companies save the planet from China’s coal future?
List of algae bioenergy companies
Investors betting on algae start ups

Image Credit – WolfieWolf via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License

Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. Fascinating post Garry. I knew China was using a lot of coal—but I did not realize China’s coal industry was so huge. What do you think are the major speed bumps to using algae for effective C02 capture in the coal industry?

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   November 25, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  2. We will definitely do a post on challenges of scaling up algae production… to lay out specifics.

    But big picture is current methods of producing biofuels are based on chemical engineering batches—which are more predictable and easier to control. Throw in (complexities of) biology – and all sorts of challenges arise.

    It’s very hard to say when and how… I think it’s just going to take lots of pilot plants and experimentation by engineers. Right now, we only have a handful of projects to base our forecasts… each is keeping their secrets close to heart.

    Startups each have their own strands of algae / bacteria… (that’s a cost factor)... and each uses their own set of growth strategies (light, additional nutrients, temperature, gas flows, et al) - but again, it’s hard to see exactly what’s holding them back.

    Long term we have synthetic biology to develop the most ideal performance. Short term we have to hope that the tens of millions of dollars being pumped into start ups—yields some return!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   November 25, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend