03 April, 2017
Courtesy of the Australian
Chinese engineer and inventor Feng Weizhong has an easy answer to how China plans to keep slashing coal use and power-station emissions while relying on coal to provide at least 55 per cent of its massive energy demand for decades to come.
The effervescent Professor Feng, who is also general manager of a large Shanghai power plant, explained to The Australian how the country can contrive to do both at the same time.
“Simple! It’s clean coal!”
China’s national energy administration has enlisted Feng as its champion in renovating outdated power plants and developing new ones that meet its needs to make more energy from lower fuel inputs, while emitting far less pollution and carbon dioxide.
Feng recently took The Australian on a tour of his virtually spotless Waigaoqiao Number 3 power station, which produces 138 per cent as much electricity as the Yallourn coal-fired plant in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.
It operates with a workforce 53 per cent the size of the Australian generator, emits just 13 per cent as much carbon dioxide equivalent, and its efficiency — measuring how much of the energy in the coal ends up as electricity — is 166 per cent that of Yallourn. It took three years to build, and opened in July 2008.
The innovative Waigaoqiao Number 3 Plant has recently attracted senior-level visitors from the energy sectors of the US, Japan, Brazil and Russia — including the head of the American Energy Administration.
And while feted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, who last year presented him with their top annual award, he has yet to be approached by any agencies or corporations from Australia about helping to solve the country’s unfolding baseload crisis highlighted by South Australian blackouts.
Feng, 62, personally holds 40 patents, including in the US and Europe. “And we have a great team here to execute this new technology,” he said.
The staff now being recruited at the plant have a minimum master’s degree qualification. Many have PhDs.
Most coal plants around the world remain at the less efficient subcritical level, but Feng has also invented new technology to upgrade them rather than dismantle them altogether. “We can increase their efficiency greatly,” he said.
But the Australian government’s trade and investment arm, Austrade, would not answer specific questions about whether it has contemplated seeking to attract the expertise or investment of Feng and his team.
Instead, an Austrade spokeswoman listed five investment priorities agreed by state and territory governments, which include energy. Within that sector, she said: “This would include international investors from a number of countries which have an interest in clean-coal technology including Japan, South Korea, China, India and the US.”
And the US may well take a closer look at clean-coal technology after Donald Trump last week unveiled a sweeping overhaul of Barack Obama’s climate-change laws. The US President signed several pro-fossil-fuel changes, which place job creation ahead of laws restricting carbon emissions. He also unravelled much of his predecessor’s climate-change initiatives, including ordering a review of Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants.
Han Xiaoping is the chief executive of China Energy Net, a major independent agency that consults on the sector for the Chinese energy industry and for the central government.
He has recently returned from a visit to Australia to study renewable energy developments.
He told The Australian: “We didn’t realise until we were there that Australia has a crucial need to renovate its coal power stations.
“I am certain that all of the five core Chinese power generation companies would wish to be involved in any scheme to renovate Australian power stations or build new generation plants.
“These companies now have at their disposal the world’s best technology; they are extremely well capitalised, and they have massive experience in building and operating such stations.
“They can provide Australia with investment and technology — with the full package of co-operation, including the capacity to build, operate and then transfer ownership.”
Han pointed out that China has become “the world’s No 1 in coal-generation efficiency and emissions control”, with ultra-supercritical generation units performing 11 per cent better than the top plant in Japan and Europe.
He said: “Australia has the capacity to build large capacity power stations whose pollution is far below that of smaller units. And if new stations are built near the coast, seawater can be used in cooling, improving efficiency and lowering cost.”
He added that “the good relations between our countries make such co-operation especially likely to work well. China’s National Energy Administration is very supportive of Chinese companies that wish to develop such connections.”
However, Australia’s track record in collaborating with China in developing cutting-edge clean-coal technology is not encouraging.
Seven years ago, for instance, power plant contractor China National Electric Engineering Corporation, with backing from China Development Bank, won a $750 million contract to build a coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley near Melbourne. Its Australian partner was to be hi-tech research firm HRL Corporation. The project would have applied new technologies that lower power plant emissions including gasification. Its aim was to generate power at the same time as minimising emissions, while using low-grade coal, reserves of which are routinely abandoned.
Zhao Ruolin, the then president of CNEEC, said the new generator could be a major breakthrough for the power industry internationally.
He said at the time: “We have already got a lot of interest internationally in this development.”
However, the innovative plant was doomed. A bitter five-year campaign, including demonstrations and legal action, prevented the joint venture from reaching first base.
Leading opponents included environmentalist Tim Flannery, Greens MP Adam Bandt, Greenpeace, Quit Coal, Doctors for the Environment Australia, and Environment Victoria — which in the last financial year received 16 per cent of its income from the federal government, which now plans however to halt such funding.
Bandt told parliament the project “risks entrenching the continued burning of brown coal when it should be replaced with renewable energy”.
Those involved in the abandoned proposal, when contacted by The Australian, said they doubted whether any Australian government could progress a new clean-coal project in the face of the inevitable prolonged, determined and well-funded opposition, however successful such new technology has proved in China.
But Shi Xunpeng, senior fellow at the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore and now also at the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, said: “China is already at the frontier of coal-fired power generation in most technology areas and in the engineering. The large size of its domestic market also creates the best economy of scale.”
Australia would be bound to benefit from building a relationship with this sector, and especially from attracting investment, he said. But, he added: “I guess there is little demand for new coal-fired power plants, due to environmental concerns and a limited need for new generation capacity. And the renovation of existing power plants ‘needs the investors to have confidence of continuous operation for at least a decade ahead’.”
Legislation could help, he said, by providing a stable framework for the expectation of sustained operation, and by raising the standards required, forcing operators to adopt lean coal technology.
Feng’s Shanghai team is doing exactly that at a relatively small, 300 megawatt plant at Suzhou in nearby Jiangsu. “We can transform it into an ultra-supercritical plant,” Feng said.
In another project he worked on in Jiangsu last year the plant’s upgraded efficiency now saves more than 170,000 tonnes of coal a year, while producing more power.
They are completing a national demonstration project, building a power plant with 1000MW and 350MW turbines, for the central government in Anhui province, about 500km from Shanghai. From planning to construction and connection to the grid will take three years, and will cost just over $1 billion.
“Renewable energy is good,” Feng said. “But for China, and for other countries, depending only on renewables makes no sense. We need several kinds of energy resource. Our land is mostly flat”, so wind can’t be the only answer, he added. The country also contains less oil and gas than many other regions of the world.
“But we can’t discuss power without discussing coal”, which remains abundant there. China must use every energy source available, he said — it’s a need driven by the country’s economic success. When the People’s Republic was formed in 1949, he said, the nation’s entire electricity output was less than that of Waigaoqiao Number 3, which today services about 10 per cent of Shanghai’s population of 24 million.
“We all in China know about pollution, though. It is getting serious. So it is our duty to increase efficiency and thus reduce the coal burned to produce the same energy, and also to reduce emissions. That’s why people feel proud to work here; of course they are.”
He added: “If your country is interested in our new technologies, we can provide them. Four of China’s big five power corporations are signing a contract to transfer our new technologies to other regions. And they can help us export them.”
Every year, he said, China must add 100 gigawatts of power supply, equal to that now needed to supply a country the size of Germany.
The clean-coal innovations, Feng said, must pay for themselves. “I have to consider the payback of everything we introduce. If it’s not commercial, we can’t do it. No subsidies. Premier Li Keqiang has mentioned our plant several times.” Australia only needs 10 such plants to answer its energy needs, he pointed out.
“We’re bringing new life to an old industry,” he said.
Not only in China but in other countries — though not, so far, in Australia.