Some skeptics on the need for the United States to invest in cleaner energy production point to India and China and claim that any investments that we make in that area will be overcome by increased emissions from those large, densely populated countries with more rapidly growing economies. People on the other side of the discussion often claim that the US needs to invest to provide an example that China, India and other developing countries will follow.
I think both views are shortsighted and actually kind of vain. Both India and China – along with many other countries that are not often considered fully developed – are educating far more mathematically and scientifically inclined students every year than we are and many of those people are becoming leaders in government and industry. Not only can they recognize the world as it is, but they can make computational choices about the best way to achieve their long term goals of prosperity and healthy living for themselves and future generations. As anyone who has done much reading about Indian or Chinese culture will realize that generational thinking is a common activity in both countries.
It was therefore no surprise to me to find an article in the New York Times titled China Outpaces U.S. in Cleaner Coal-Fired Plants that also mentions the fact that China is building more nuclear power plants than the rest of the world combined. One mentioned policy in the article is part of China’s rather well considered response to the economic crisis; they are taking the opportunity provided by the pause in electricity demand growth enabled by a slowdown in manufacturing to replace some of their dirtiest coal fired power stations.
In contrast to the advice provided by people like Jon Wellinghoff, Amory Lovins and Joe Romm, China is not allowing the slowdown in electricity demand growth to enable it to simply stop investing in new power plant technology, hoping that conservation will provide a cheaper way to supply adequate power.
Western countries continue to rely heavily on coal-fired power plants built decades ago with outdated, inefficient technology that burn a lot of coal and emit considerable amounts of carbon dioxide. China has begun requiring power companies to retire an older, more polluting power plant for each new one they build.
One part of the article’s description of China’s drive to produce cleaner, more abundant power makes me wonder if there are not some planners in the energy business with a sense of humor and an understanding of the art of deception.
Perhaps the biggest question now is how much further China can go beyond the recent steps. In particular, how fast will it move toward power plants that capture their emissions and store them underground or under the seafloor?
That technology could, in theory, create power plants that contribute virtually nothing to global warming. Many countries hope to develop such plants, though progress has been halting; Energy Secretary Chu has promised steps to speed up the technology in the United States.
China has just built a small, experimental facility near Beijing to remove carbon dioxide from power station emissions and use it to provide carbonation for beverages, and the government has a short list of possible locations for a large experiment to capture and store carbon dioxide. But so far, it has no plans to make this a national policy.
First of all, capturing carbon dioxide for beverages does nothing to stop the gas from being released into the environment, but it does offer the potential to turn a waste product into something that can be sold. Secondly, I would not hold my breath waiting for the actual capture and storage system to be installed. My guess is that Chinese planners will recognize that preventing emissions is much easier than curing them; once they have more fully developed their HTR-PM high temperature reactors they will begin replacing the coal boilers in their hundreds of steam power plants with nuclear reactors.
In fact, based on steam plant temperatures and steam cycle flows, those decommissioned, less efficient coal plants mentioned above might be just the right stepping stone for testing that type of power conversion project.