Coal tech may be di­a­mond in the rough for China

Cana­dian in­no­va­tion could help cut emis­sions there, Doug Firby writes.

Regina Leader-Post - - OPINION - Vet­eran po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Doug Firby is pres­i­dent of Troy Me­dia Dig­i­tal So­lu­tions and pub­lisher of Troy Me­dia. © 2017 Dis­trib­uted by Troy Me­dia

If Santa brought you a lump of coal this Christ­mas, maybe you shouldn’t feel so bad about it. That coal might come in handy as an ac­cept­able part of our en­ergy fu­ture.

Tech­nol­ogy ex­ists that can trans­form coal from en­vi­ron­men­tal vil­lain into a fuel that at least won’t make things worse than they al­ready are. One day, it might even be a pos­i­tive.

The tech­nol­ogy is called car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (CCS). As the name im­plies, it cap­tures al­most all of that nasty car­bon diox­ide (CO2) cre­ated when you burn fos­sil fu­els. It’s then stored un­der­ground un­til we de­velop cre­ative ways to use it to make new prod­ucts.

Although there are plenty of CCS skep­tics, more and more this tech­nol­ogy is seen as vi­tal as we con­sider the world’s big­gest con­sumer of coal — China.

China is un­ques­tion­ably the fo­cus of the world’s coal dilemma. Coal con­sump­tion ac­counts for two-thirds of China’s en­ergy sup­ply, ac­cord­ing to Jiang Lin, the Nat Si­mons chair in China en­ergy pol­icy at Lawrence Berke­ley Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory. He was one of two guest speak­ers fea­tured in a re­cent Pem­bina In­sti­tute we­bi­nar on China’s en­ergy scene.

In 2015, China ac­counted for half of the coal con­sumed in the world.

There was a great deal of hand-wring­ing ear­lier this decade when China went on a coal-plant build­ing frenzy to meet the en­ergy de­mands as­so­ci­ated with its eco­nomic growth. Re­cently, it has shifted its fo­cus to re­new­ables, putting planned coal plants on hold and in­vest­ing mas­sively in wind and so­lar.

But here’s the rub. Although China man­aged to curb coal con­sump­tion for three years, start­ing in 2014, emis­sions re­cently started to rise again, by 3.5 per cent. That’s be­cause in spite of the coun­try’s best ef­forts to shift to re­new­able en­ergy, de­mand has out­paced growth. China has been forced to turn back to coal just to meet grow­ing en­ergy de­mand.

So the prob­lem of CO2 emis­sions is not yet on the road to res­o­lu­tion. In the com­ing years, it will get worse in­stead of bet­ter.

But there’s where Canada’s ef­forts come into play. Our coun­try has been a leader in de­vel­op­ing clean coal tech­nol­ogy. Saskatchewan, in fact, has vir­tu­ally bet the farm on its con­tro­ver­sial $1.5-bil­lion CCS demon­stra­tion fa­cil­ity at Bound­ary

Dam in the south­ern part of the province. It’s the first com­mer­cial-scale CCS pro­ject in the world.

The eco­nomics of that pro­ject don’t look very good. A re­cent in­de­pen­dent au­dit fore­cast that Bound­ary Dam will cost SaskPower and Saskatchewan tax­pay­ers a net loss of $651 mil­lion over the pro­ject’s life. Not sur­pris­ingly, the rul­ing Saskatchewan Party is pay­ing a stiff po­lit­i­cal price.

But in­no­va­tion has never been cheap. Could the lessons learned and the tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped be of in­ter­est to the world’s largest emit­ter of coal-based CO2? China has built a lot of coal-fired plants in re­cent years and won’t soon be go­ing away. Could China buy the tech­nol­ogy and retro­fit some of its coal plants with CCS?

Skep­tics mock Canada’s

Boy Scout-like de­sire to take a lead on car­bon diox­ide emis­sions re­duc­tions at a time when ma­jor eco­nomic com­peti­tors, like the U.S., are loos­en­ing the reg­u­la­tory reins. They note, quite rightly, that Canada ac­counts for just two per cent of CO2 emis­sions in the world, so our best ef­forts will do lit­tle to solve the prob­lem.

Such facile ar­gu­ments miss the point. Canada, of course, will not be act­ing alone. And the tech­nolo­gies we de­velop in this coun­try can be shared with (or sold to) the world’s big­gest pol­luters. Like China.

One day, peo­ple will be kept warm, moved about and fed through the use of re­new­able en­er­gies. That is, if we can hang in long enough to get there.

The big ques­tion is how we can sus­tain our liv­ing stan­dard with­out fac­ing some of the worst-case en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences so fre­quently laid out in night­mar­ish de­tail. Most cli­mate sci­en­tists agree dra­matic world­wide ac­tion is nec­es­sary to avoid the worst of these sce­nar­ios.

Let it start here, in this coun­try, with our CCS tech­nol­ogy. That lump of coal could be our gift to the world.

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