Clean coal is, once again, having a bit of a moment. The suite of technologies that the industry hopes could one day remove carbon dioxide from exhaust at coal-fired power plants around the world is featured in this month's issue of National Geographic. It's on the cover of Wired, too…
…Yet the recurring buzz around clean coal isn't much more justified this time around than it has been previously. Perhaps even more than other new energy technologies, clean coal is still mostly experimental, and it remains exorbitantly expensive. China has invested heavily in the technology, and if the research goes well, clean coal might prove enormously beneficial there -- but perhaps less so in other countries, and the United States might not ever have much use for it.
Clean coal is important to Chinese leaders partly because of the country's large coal reserves. "They have so much coal, and their whole infrastructure is geared around coal," said Kelly Sims Gallagher of [The Fletcher School,] Tufts University. The country has built many new coal plants in the last decade, and these plants could theoretically be retrofitted with new equipment to capture carbon dioxide. Also, the Chinese government has also built several plants that vaporize coal before it is burned. The process clears up soot and smog in urban areas, but produces even more carbon dioxide. There would be no shortage of opportunities for Chinese engineers to use clean coal technology if it were available.
Other sources of energy, like renewable and nuclear power and natural gas, will be necessary for China all the same if the country hopes to control its carbon dioxide emissions. Clean coal "needs inevitably to be part of the solution in China, but it’s not the only solution. Far from it." said Gallagher, who just published a book on energy technology in China. Different kinds of power can serve different purposes, and it's impossible to predict which technologies will develop most successfully.
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