Zhichao Li

Zhichao Li

McKelvey School of Engineering: Energy, Enviornmental & Chemical Engineering, PhD

Scholar Highlight

Coal’s Future: Moving Forward Greenly

While the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is promoting carbon emissions reduction globally and China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) continues controlling coal consumption, coal is still demonstrating its indisputable role in many nations’ economic development and people’s daily lives. According to statistics by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, coal provided 46% of the additional global primary energy supply from 2000 to 2012. Although coal’s contribution to global energy has been diminishing over the past decade due to its harmful environmental impacts, coal’s share of global primary energy consumption remains nearly one third in 2015. Particularly in a developing country like China, coal accounts for 70% of the nation’s total electricity generation capacity over the past few years. Undeniably, China’s foreseeable future greatly depends on how coal moves forward.

Over the past several years there has been a series of intensive debates between two figures, Alex Epstein and Bill McKibben, who hold completely opposite standpoints on the use of coal. Epstein proposed more consumption of coal due to its benefits to the economy and minimal effects on the environment, while McKibben strongly believed that cutbacks in coal use would prevent the climate from further deterioration, and that alternative energy sources like solar and wind energy would suffice to meet human demands on energy. It is interesting to note that on the one hand, Epstein neglects the undeniable truth of climate change, which can be mostly attributed to CO2 emissions by coal combustion, and on the other hand, McKibben unwisely refused to admit the primary role of coal in the energy supply. In my opinion, the most practical strategy for energy development should be focused on green coal economy and clean coal technology.

In Shanxi province of China, where coal reserves and output account for one-fourth of the nation’s total and coal and coal-related industries occupy about 80 percent of the province’s industrial added value, some coal-rich cities have been trying to restructure their unsustainable coal economy. On the one hand, environmental compensation policies were established to force coal producers to pay for green initiatives. For example, farmers in Jincheng, a city in Shanxi province, have been encouraged to plant cash trees since the 1980s and their subsidy comes partly from the tax levied on coal suppliers. Coal-mine owners are required to pay 10 yuan for each ton of coal they mined and to transform land into forest. Under the power of these mechanisms, nearly 90 percent of barren mountain land due to mining has been covered with trees, which would definitely mitigate CO2 emission in that area. Coal producers are motivated since they could also make a fortune from planting cash trees. At Shuozhou in Shanxi province, where the natural conditions are harsh for plants, Mongolian pines are used to cover the coal mines and bring water from the Yellow River. The investments also come from a coal-mining company as well as local government.

Alternatively, coal-rich cities are seeking technology-based solutions such as coal-electricity integration and coal coking business, as well as enhancing efficiency through promoting clean technology. The developments of coal-to-gas, coal-to-chemicals and coal-to-liquids projects are aimed at transforming coal into cleaner fuel.

Technologies such as pressurized coal oxy-combustion extensively studied in the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis and amine-based scrubbers widely promoted by large coal companies like Peabody in the U.S., are becoming popular approaches to CO2 capture. In addition, industrial parks focusing primarily on processing coal plant waste, such as fly ash and coal gangue, are under construction.

Since China has become the runner-up in the world’s economy and the largest consumer of coal globally, it is imperative for China to take the lead in the green coal revolution, not only in the sense of structuring a coal economy but also in terms of technological development. I have a strong faith: The greener the coal use, the brighter the future will be in China.