Could Canada’s costly innovation help solve China’s coal dilemma?

Saskatchewan's $1.5-billion CCS demonstration facility at Boundary Dam in the southern part of the province is the first commercial-scale CCS project in the world

If Santa brought you a lump of coal this Christmas, maybe you shouldn’t feel so bad about it. That coal might actually 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, 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.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

© Troy Media

china, coal, innovation

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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