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The problem is that IGCC plants still cost about 10 percent to 20 percent more per megawatt than pulverized-coal-fired power plants. (And that’s without carbon dioxide capture.) China’s power producers–much like their counterparts in the United States and Europe–are waiting for a financial or political reason to make the switch. In part, what’s been missing is regulation that penalizes conventional coal plants. And China’s environmental agencies lack the resources and power to make companies comply even with regulations already on the books. Top officials in Beijing admit that their edicts are widely ignored, as new power plants are erected without environmental assessments and, according to some sources, without required equipment for pollution control.

Even advocates of IGCC technology expect that its widespread deployment in China will take at least another decade. Indeed, Du Minghua, a director for coal chemistry at the Chinese Coal Research Institute, predicts that it will be 2020 before application of IGCC technology begins in earnest.

Waiting to Inhale

Despite such pessimistic predictions, China’s vast experience with advanced coal technologies and its proven ability to implement new technologies at a startling pace provide ample room for optimism. When you’re racing into Shanghai at one-third the speed of sound on a train supported by an electromagnetic force field, it’s hard to believe that a country capable of such an engineering feat will continue to ignore the deadly pollution engulfing its cities.

To some analysts, the switch to clean-coal technology seems almost inevitable. “China has to rely on coal for future electricity and fuel needs, and it will eventually have to cap its CO2 emissions,” says Guodong Sun, a technology policy expert at New York’s Stony Brook University who has advised the Chinese government on energy policy. “Gasification is one of a very few technologies that can reconcile those conflicting scenarios at reasonable cost.”

Still, the timing of such a technology transition is very much in question. Will China really wait until 2020 to start the process of cleaning up its coal-fired power plants? The answer will depend, ultimately, on when China begins to feel that using coal gasification to generate electricity is as urgent as using it to produce transportation fuels–when the costs of air pollution become as worrisome as the costs of relying on foreign oil.

Peter Fairley, a Technology Review contributing writer, traveled to China in October.

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Credit: Natalie Behring/Reuters

Tagged: Energy, emissions, clean coal, coal plant

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