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China looks set to overtake the United States in the application of technologies to clean up coal-fired power generation, if several proposed projects come to fruition. GreenGen–a joint venture established by Chinese utilities–has broken ground on China’s first integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant and signed agreements to build two more.

At the same time IGCC is stalled in the US. In February, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) canceled an advanced IGCC technology demonstration project called FutureGen, and climate concerns have paralyzed all but one of 30-plus IGCC projects proposed by U.S. utilities since 2000.

GreenGen is now the most advanced project of its kind in the world, according to Ming Sung, Beijing-based Asia/Pacific representative for the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental consulting firm based in Boston. “They are ahead because they have completed engineering [and] design, major equipment is selected and on order, and site preparation and foundation [work] has begun,” says Ming.

The oil and gas giant BP reinforced China’s position as a clean-coal technology leader last month, by establishing a $73 million research center in Shanghai with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to help commercialize technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and gasification. In another sign of the country’s suddenly bold role in green technology, China’s battery giant BYD launched the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid vehicle yesterday.

Underpinning China’s potential leadership in carbon-neutral coal power is broad expertise with gasification. By 2010, China will have installed 29 gasification projects since 2004, compared with zero in the United States, according to the Gasification Technologies Council, a trade group based in Arlington, VA. Most of these Chinese projects turn coal into synthesis gas (or syngas)–a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen–to feed catalysts that synthesize chemicals and fuels. IGCC technology uses the same syngas to drive turbines and generate electricity with far less pollution than conventional coal plants. For example, mercury and soot levels are close to those seen at natural gas-fired plants, while carbon dioxide comes out in a pure stream that should be easier to capture and sequester.

Until recently, Chinese power firms ignored IGCC technology because conventional coal plants are cheaper to build and operate. But Guodong Sun, a technology policy expert at New York’s Stony Brook University, says that GreenGen and a few other IGCC projects are gathering momentum thanks to a blend of government incentives, tighter environmental regulation, and emerging concern for corporate self-image among China’s leading power producers. Sun says that GreenGen, for example, is important to the national government as a symbol of homegrown Chinese technology.

The project plans to start up a 250-megawatt IGCC plant in Tianjin in 2010 using a novel gasifier designed by the Thermal Power Research Institute in Xi’an; the plant will also supply some syngas and heat to local chemical plants. GreenGen plans to catapult the output of the gasifier design, from a 36-tons-per-day pilot plant, directly to commercial scale of 2,000 tons per day.

And GreenGen is already preparing to scale up further: in April, GreenGen and Tianjin officials signed an agreement for two 400-megawatt IGCC units. Meanwhile, Chinese utility firm Huaneng, GreenGen’s majority stakeholder, started up a CCS pilot project at its Beijing coal power plant this summer.

While municipal air-quality concerns support GreenGen’s plans, Sun says that they are central to another IGCC project that he believes will be built: a 200-megawatt IGCC plant in Hangzhou proposed by Chinese utility company Huadian Power International. “For the Huadian project, the most important factor is sulfur dioxide and acid-rain regulations,” says Sun. “SO2 emissions are capped in Hangzhou, and … IGCC is an excellent solution.”

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Credit: GreenGen

Tagged: Energy, China, coal, clean coal, IGCC, coal-fired power generation, clean-coal technology

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