By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff
Western Washington University
Washington state is eliminating coal-fired power in an effort to reduce harmful emissions. China is attempting to reduce emissions using new technology for burning coal.
“Individual coal plants have different efficiencies and pollution rates. A plant in China may be more or less efficient than one in Washington based on the technology at the plant,” said Justin Brant, climate change policy analyst for the Washington Department of Ecology. “That said, climate change is a global issue and greenhouse gases produced in China have the same effect as those produced in Washington or anywhere else.”
Clean coal technology includes a variety of ways to reduce emissions. The five major emissions associated with coal burning are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, mercury and carbon dioxide, said Brad Tomer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Major Demonstrations.
Technologies exist or are currently under development to control these five types of emissions. Of particular controversy is the existence of carbon capture and storage: a process the Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimates could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent.
“It’s not futuristic in the sense of pie in the sky,” Tomer said.
Carbon capture and storage has its skeptics. Craig Benjamin of the Environmental Priorities Coalition said, “That doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like a unicorn: people like to talk about it — they’ve been talking about it for 30 years — but there’s no example of it.”
Carbon capture and storage would require separating carbon dioxide from other gases emitted during the burning process and storing it underground to prevent its release into the atmosphere. The National Mining Association predicts it will be available for commercial use between 2020 and 2025.
In November 2009, the presidents of the U.S. and China established the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center to promote clean coal technology, including large-scale carbon capture and storage. The center will support joint research by scientists and engineers from both countries and conduct multiple studies on carbon capture and storage at coal-fired plants in China.
“Carbon capture and storage technology for electric power generation is still in the developmental stages,” Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, wrote in an email. “As things are going now, China has the lead on moving this technology forward as they are building new coal plants faster than any other country and have, therefore, the platform upon which to test carbon capture and storage.”
Kimberly Cauvel is a Western Washington University senior majoring in environmental journalism. Marianne Graff is a Western Washington University senior majoring in journalism.
This story is part of a package produced by the students in the Journalism 450 class at Western Washington University. They were primarily edited by WWU Professor Carolyn Nielsen. InvestigateWest co-founder and senior environmental correspondent Robert McClure advised the students when they were partway through the reporting process, and helped prepare the final stories for publication. View the remaining elements of the package here.