Monday, October 29, 2007

World’s addiction to coal growing

Portland Press Herald
October 29, 2007

Despite concerns about global warning, use of the cheap, black- buring fuel is expanding quickly in China.

By ELAINE KURTENBACH, The Associated Press

JUNGAR QI, China — Almost nonstop, gargantuan 145-ton
trucks rumble through China’s biggest open-pit coal mine,
sending up clouds of soot as they dump their loads into
mechanized sorters.

The black treasure has transformed this once-isolated
crossroads nestled in the sand-sculpted ravines of Inner
Mongolia into a bleak boomtown of nearly 300,000 people. Day
and night, long and dusty trains haul out coal to electric power
plants and factories in the east, fueling China’s explosive

Coal is big, and getting bigger. As oil and natural gas prices
soar, the world is relying ever more on the cheap, black-burning
mainstay of the Industrial Revolution. Mining companies are
racing into Africa. Workers are laying miles of new railroad track
to haul coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and

And nowhere is coal bigger than in China.

But the explosion of coal comes amid rising alarm over its dire
consequences for workers and the environment. An average of
13 Chinese miners die every day in explosions, floods, fires and
cave-ins. Toxic clouds of mercury and other chemicals from
mining are poisoning the air and water far beyond China’s
borders and polluting the food chain.

So far, attempts to clean up coal have largely not worked.
Technology to reduce or cut out carbon dioxide emissions is
expensive and years away from widespread commercial use.

“Not very many people are talking about what do we do to live
with the consequences of what’s happening,” said James Brock,
a longtime industry consultant in the Beijing office of Cambridge
Energy Research Associates. “The polar bears are doomed –
they’re going to museums. At the end of this century the Arctic
ice cap will be gone. That means a lot of water rising, not by
inches but meters.”

Burned since ancient times, coal dramatically increased in use
during the Industrial Revolution, when it became fuel for the new
steam engines, gas lamps and electrical generators. Worldwide
demand for coal dipped at the end of the 20th century, but is
now back up and projected to rise 60 percent by 2030 to 6.9
billion tons a year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Today, most coal goes to electrical power plants. In developing
nations such as India, China and Africa, coal is the staple – and
affordable – source of fuel with which families run their first
washing machines and televisions. Worldwide electricity
consumption is expected to double by 2030, the World Energy
Council says.

In America, about 150 new coal-fired electrical plants are
proposed over the next decade. In China, there are plans for a
coal-fired power plant to go on line nearly every week.
Emissions from these plants alone could nullify the cuts made by
Europe, Japan and other rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol
treaty, according to a report from the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars in Washington.

In a developing country like China, coal is the backbone of the
energy system.

Look at the port city of Shanghai, where the bitter tang in the air
is not from a salty sea breeze – it’s the smoke from coal-
burning stoves in the suburbs used for cooking and heating.
From the shacks of migrant workers on the edge of town to
modern factories and skyscrapers, China’s biggest city is
powered by coal. Even the ultramodern Maglev railway line runs
on electricity from a coal-fueled plant.

China mined a record 2.4 billion tons of coal in 2006, up 8.1
percent from a year earlier. But even that can’t keep boilers and
blast furnaces stoked in an economy growing more than 10
percent a year. So China became a net coal importer for the first
time this year. While Chinese authorities are closing down older,
heavily polluting plants, they can’t keep up with a massive
expansion in urban housing and industry and the coal that feeds

China is the world’s biggest consumer and producer of coal, but
it’s far from the only one. U.S. coal production hit a record 1.2
billion tons last year, according to the National Mining
Association, and is forecast by the government to rise 50
percent by 2030. Yet the United States rejected the Kyoto
Protocol, arguing that the required emissions cuts could slow
economic growth.

For another measure, look at the ticker on the Web site of St.
Louis-based Peabody Coal Co., the world’s largest coal mining
company, which tracks its growing sales second by second. Last
year: 248 million tons sold. For 2007: On track for up to 275
million tons.

China’s Shenhua Group is hot on Peabody’s heels. On one day in
June, a record 111 Shenhua coal trains left its mines in north-
central China, the company said.

Rising demand can be met because coal is the Earth’s most
abundant fossil fuel, with reserves expected to last some 250
years – far longer than forecasts for petroleum. And whether in
China, India, the United States or Europe, coal is available at
home, away from the instability of the Middle East.

“The U.S. has under its own soil at least a 200-year supply of
coal. China has a very long-term supply of coal,” Steve
Papermaster, co-chairman of the energy committee of President
Bush’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, told a
recent conference in Shanghai.

For several years, cleaner burning natural gas appeared a
promising substitute. But soaring prices and worries over the
reliability of Mideast and Russian supplies have dimmed the
promise of that option. Alternatives such as wind and solar
power are getting cheaper but still can’t compete with coal.

Most experts believe that whatever the costs to the environment
and public health, coal is with us to stay.

“The question is not about putting a line through coal and
saying we’re not going to use it,” said Milton Catelin, chief
executive of the London-based World Coal Institute, an industry
association. “There’s a future for coal. The developing world will
have to use coal. They need cheap energy to get ahead.”

The solution Catelin and others in the industry are pushing is
clean technology, although they admit they are late to the game.

“The decade 1997-2007 was a lost decade” for clean coal
technology, Catelin conceded. “We should have done much
more. Now we’re playing catch-up.”

The need is clear. In the provincial steel town of Baotou, trucks
heaped high with coal rumble into Shenhua yards, dumping their
loads into huge sieves for sorting into various grades of quality
and size. Wind gusts whip black soot into the sky, thickening the
layer of smog from the city’s smelters.

The U.S. and Chinese governments are subsidizing the
development of technology that converts coal to a clean-burning
gas before it is burned. But such plants still emit ample amounts
of carbon dioxide, notes Qian Jingjing, an expert with the
Natural Resources Defense Council in New York and co-author
of the report “Coal in a Changing Climate.”

She and many other experts believe coal can only be made
environmentally sustainable through the more experimental
technology of capturing carbon dioxide emissions and storing
them underground.

A joint government-private project in the United States aims to
build such a “zero emissions” plant by 2012. Separately, Xcel
Corp. of Minneapolis, a major electric and natural gas utility, is
studying building a carbon capture and storage power plant in

Across the Atlantic, the European Union may require carbon
capture and storage systems for all new coal-fired power plants,
with a proposal expected by year end. The gas would be buried
in aquifers, depleted coal mines or geological faults deep

But the costs are daunting.

“It takes a lot of money since you have to go so deep,” said
Brock of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “There is not
one commercial carbon capture and storage project yet. It’s yet
to be proven.”

With such high costs, few utilities will embrace these
technologies without a strong push or subsidy from
government. The U.S. Congress is weighing several proposals,
but their fate remains uncertain.

The degree of public support for such policies remains unclear.
Consumers may balk at having to pay more for electricity from
“clean coal” plants, either through higher rates or taxes.

But there is growing awareness of the problem. In both the West
and India and China, traditional utilities and new players are
investing in wind and solar power. A subsidiary of coal giant
Shenhua is building a 200-megawatt wind farm in the waters off
China’s east coast.

“The goal is to raise both efficiency and turn to renewables while
backing out of coal in the process,” said Lester Brown, president
of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank in
Washington. “The question is, can we move fast enough?”

Meanwhile, in Jungar Qi, the house-sized mine trucks rumble
on, rushing their multi-ton loads of coal to railways and coal
yards. The biggest landmark in the city – the two huge
smokestacks of its coal-fired power plant.

Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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