Gaining New Perspectives on Energy: A Month in China

Gaining New Perspectives on Energy: A Month in China

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Last September, I was invited on a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) delegation trip to China as part of the U.S.-China Fossil Energy Protocol, a bilateral agreement between the two countries. The purpose of our visit was to learn about China’s work on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), in the hopes that this could inform future collaboration between the two countries to advance these technologies even further. It was an extremely eye-opening experience, particularly after working on CCS policy the previous year in the U.S. Senate as an IEEE Congressional Fellow. I came away from the experience in China with two main impressions: 1) the magnitude of CO2 emissions is larger than I ever imagined, and 2) if coal development in China continues at its current pace, it is imperative that CCS play a role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in rapidly developing countries like China and India.

Exchange Program Opening Ceremony

Our U.S. delegation included of a mix of mechanical and chemical engineers, and an international advisor from DOE. In addition to myself, the team included a Program Analyst and an International Advisor from DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and a Federal Project Manager from DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). Throughout the three-week trip, we were hosted by two industry groups: Shenhua Group, which is a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) and the largest coal producing company in the world, and Yanchang Petroleum, a province-level owned enterprise that is one of four such companies that can drill and explore in China. It’s interesting to note that Yanchang gained their drilling privileges due to the important role the province played during the rise of the Communist Party. After the Long March, Mao made the area his home base for recruiting members and publishing influential texts.

Our trip began in Beijing, where we spent almost a week taking cultural classes and touring local Research & Development (R&D) centers. We also visited Sanhe Power, a coal-fired power plant (CFPP) located about 24 miles east of the city. Due to the high pollution rates, the Chinese government mandated that all major CFPPs in Beijing be shut down if their emission rates are higher than power plants fueled by natural gas. This target is referred to as “near-zero emissions” and includes particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Due to an extensive retrofit currently underway at Sanhe Power, we were told that it is the only CFPP that will be kept open, and all other CFPPs will be replaced by natural gas-fired plants. It is amazing to think that such large-scale retrofits are underway for a plant that is only 15 years old! (For comparison, the average age of the U.S. coal fleet is about 40 years.) Throughout the trip, we were advised that the buildout of large-scale coal-fired facilities for electrical generation was occurring so rapidly that it is not uncommon for power plant retrofits to begin immediately after the initial construction is complete.

Despite the Chinese government’s insistence that proactive steps were being taken to reduce emissions in Beijing, the sky was clouded with pollution every day we were there. The air pollution was so bad that on several occasions, I was almost tempted to wear the facemask that was provided in my hotel room. In fact, there was only one day during the course of the trip that I can recall being able to see blue sky – and that was in Baotau, Inner Mongolia. It is difficult to imagine that a large percentage of the Chinese population has to live and work under these environmental conditions on a daily basis. In fact, our translator showed me an app on her iPhone that displays the PM level for the day – one number from the Chinese government, and another from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. She said that the U.S. Embassy number is always higher, and is the number she and and her friends rely on. While the Chinese government has committed to reducing CO2 emissions, particulate emissions continue to have a profound and immediate impact on daily life and respiratory health in China.

Before we left Beijing, we visited two major research facilities: the National Institute of Clean-and-Low-Carbon Energy (NICE) and the Huaneng Clean Energy Research Institute. Coal research is the focus for both institutes, but they also have a variety of research programs looking at technologies for other energy sources, including solar, wind, nuclear, and natural gas. For instance, at Huaneng we were shown state-of-the art equipment for coal characterization as well as simulation results for optimized placement of wind turbines. At NICE, we saw a range of research projects, but again, the primary focus was on coal – particularly on coal-to-liquid technologies (CTL) for fuels and chemicals production. While the U.S. chemical industry is based on natural gas, China’s wealth of coal and limited supply of natural gas has prompted them to invest heavily in CTL. Accordingly, catalyst and gasification technology for the Fischer-Tropsch process is a significant area of research and development in China. For instance, NICE’s pilot lab for large-scale gasification testing is three stories tall – much larger than anything that has been built in the United States – and they plan to sell 100 of these units to Shenhua’s CTL plants in the next 10 years. Since NICE is owned by Shenhua, they can strategically plan for these types of large-scale investments. The visit to NICE was particularly enlightening on the importance of CTL in China and the rate of development that will continue over the coming years. While CFPPs are the dominant source of CO2 emissions in China, it will be important to consider the impact of CTL facilities on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions as well.

Touring the National Institute of Clean and Low-Carbon Energy (NICE) research and development center.

The next stop in our trip was Taiyuin for the 2014 US-China Clean Energy Workshop, a gathering of coal and CCS experts from the U.S. and Chinese governments, research institutions and utility companies. As part of the workshop, we visited Gameng Power Plant, a new CFPP that provides power, but also heat to two neighboring cities.  Since the plant is located so close to these cities, the waste heat (i.e., steam) from power generation can deliver residential heating to more than 300,000 people. Combined heat and power on this scale would be difficult in the United States due to the much longer distances between power plants and cities. Another differentiating aspect of the plant is that it is air-cooled instead of water-cooled (the preferred method from a thermodynamics perspective). Due to the significant constraints on water resources in China, many of the newer plants are being built with large fans to cool the condenser (i.e., using a direct air-cooling approach), thus eliminating the need for water-cooling. During our discussions, it became clear that a main priority for the Chinese government and utilities is to advance the state of the art for air-cooling. Certain U.S. regions also suffer from water scarcity or cyclical drought issues, so these technologies could be mutually beneficial and therefore provide another area for potential collaboration between the United States and China.

From Taiyuin, we traveled to Xi’an, and then Yan’an, Inner Mongolia, where Yanchang Petroleum hosted us. It was during this segment of the trip that we first saw operational CCS. While Yanchang is primarily an oil and gas producer, they also have a handful of CTL plants. Since they control both the resource extraction and energy conversion processes, they have been able to develop a fully integrated approach to CCS – CO2 is captured at their CTL plants and then injected in the ground for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) at their oil and gas wells. During this portion of the trip, we saw several of their natural gas wells in the Ordos Basin, including shale gas wells and CO2 injection for EOR. Compared to U.S. gas production, the wells we saw were extremely small. In fact, China’s gas production is less than a quarter of gas production in the United States, including both shale and non-shale gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that China has just about the same amount of technically recoverable shale gas as the United States, but there are inherent difficulties in extracting it due to the complex geology and mountainous terrain where most of it is located. Despite these difficulties, we did see a CO2-EOR injection well that was operational with CO2 from a nearby CTL plant, which we also visited. For this operation, 150 tons of CO2 are collected daily and loaded onto trucks to be delivered up the mountain to the EOR injection sites.

Through conversations with plant managers, we learned that the use of CO2 for EOR is viewed as paramount for the success of widespread CCS in China, very similar to the situation in the United States. However, unlike the United States, it is clear that there remains great difficulty in extracting the gas in China, even with techniques such as EOR. Unfortunately, this seems to indicate a much smaller opportunity for market drivers of CO2 in China. However, at certain points in the trip we did hear about developing high-purity CO2 for chemicals and fuel production. Also, long-term storage of CO2 could be an option, but is unlikely without a policy mandate. That being said, we did visit a CO2 injection site in the Ordos Basin that is a research collaboration with West Virginia University and NETL. For this operation, CO2 from the nearby Shenhua CTL plant is trucked up to the injection site, similar to the previous CCS operation that we saw for EOR. The plan is to inject a total of 500 kilotons of CO2 by mid-2015 at a depth of 2,800 meters and then monitor any CO2 leakage over the coming years.

The next and final stop on our journey was Shanghai. Coming from Inner Mongolia, where finished roads are a luxury and coal mining is the main economic driver, the contrast was stark. During our three days in the city, we met with a boiler-making company, toured Jiaotong University, a Shenhau research institute, and lastly, Huaneng Power International’s 2nd Shanghai Power Plant. Shenhua Group supplies about half of the coal for Huaneng Power, while the other half is imported from Russia and Indonesia. Huaneng Power has an installed capacity of 1,200 MW consisting of two 600 MW supercritical units. Recently, they have installed a 100,000 ton per year CO2 capture demonstration project using a standard amine based solvent, monoethanolamine (MEA). After the CO2 is captured, it is refined at the plant to increase its purity to 99 percent or better. The CO2 is then sold to either the food and chemicals industry or to oil and gas producers, depending on current market prices.

At the entrance to Shenhua’s Shendong Coal Mine, where 90 percent of the coal produced is used for power generation.

All in all, our U.S. delegation toured 3 CFPPs, 5 CTL plants, 1 coal mine, 2 natural gas wells, 5 research labs and universities, and stayed in 7 cities throughout central, eastern and northern China. While we certainly experienced the dirty side of coal, we also learned about some positive trends in the industry. For one, much of China’s coal fleet is now supercritical or ultrasupercritical, so their efficiency is higher than the typical U.S. coal plant. Also, combined heat and power is possible at a greater scale due to the size of the plants and close proximity to cities. Obviously, it is not ideal from an emissions standpoint that CFPPs are located so close to the population, but if there is indeed a will to retrofit these plants with aftertreatment technology, that will hopefully become less of a concern.

While I learned many things on our various plant and lab tours, perhaps the most meaningful takeaway from the trip was gaining a deeper understanding of the rate and magnitude of development in China. I found that it was difficult to truly understand this without seeing it first-hand and experiencing the sheer number of people on the streets and subways at any given time. Combined with the high poverty levels we saw in some areas and numerous environmental issues that impact daily air and water quality in addition to GHG emissions, the complexity of finding a solution increases dramatically. However, with U.S.-China relations continuing to rapidly improve, we have a tremendous opportunity to work together to come up with solutions that will have an impact on a global scale. Throughout the trip we saw a great willingness for our countries to work together and find solutions to these larger-than-life problems, including developing technologies so that CCS can be economically viable, increasing the efficiency and decreasing emissions from CFPPs, and continuing to develop renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar.

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Anne Marie Lewis, Ph.D.,  served 2013-2014 as an IEEE Congressional Fellow, assigned to the office of Senator Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), where she focused on North Dakota’s most important energy issues.


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