Greens who celebrated China’s switch to gas are now worried the plans seem to be in disarray, as rushed conversions trigger a gas supply crisis. But behind the scenes, China is pursuing a gas production plan so carbon intensive, even Chinese greens are openly criticising central government policy.
Chinese officials point fingers as gasification crisis worsens
Meng Meng, Ryan Woo
DECEMBER 22, 2017 / 5:28 PM
BEIJING (Reuters) – When an inspector from a local environmental protection bureau visited a small village in China’s Shandong province in October to check on a gasification project, she said village officials became tearful in lamenting how far behind schedule they were.
For years, the village has been haunted by pollution from nearby coal mines and chemical plants. The village had been rushing to finish installing new gas boilers for residents as they ditched their old coal stoves, the inspector told Reuters.
The boilers are part of an ambitious gasification program under which millions of households, and some industrial users, are switching from coal to natural gas for heating, as Beijing tries to clean the tainted air in northern China after decades of galloping growth.
The effect of the dramatic switch has been felt globally, with internationally shipped gas prices almost doubling this year to more than $10 per million British thermal units, the highest since the end of 2014.
It has also been felt locally due to poor coordination among government bodies and gas producers, and miscalculations in demand, which have sent gas prices soaring, left many residents freezing in their homes, and shuttered factories.
Where there is gas supply, it cannot reach homes in some cases as the replacement gas infrastructure has not been installed.
“Everyone’s job is linked to whether we can meet the target,” the environmental protection inspector said, declining to be named and refusing to identify the village due to sensitivity of the matter.
Information about China’s carbon intensive plans to fix their gas supply problems is sparse – perhaps China is keen to maintain a fiction of climate leadership. But the plan to generate vast quantities of gas from coal has been in place since at least 2014.
‘Irrational’ Coal Plants May Hamper China’s Climate Change Efforts
By EDWARD WONG FEB. 7, 2017
YINING, China — When scientists and environmental scholars scan the grim industrial landscape of China, a certain coal plant near the rugged Kazakhstan border stands out.
On the outside, it looks like any other modern energy plant — shiny metal towers loom over the grassy grounds, and workers in hard hats stroll the campus. But in those towers, a rare and contentious process is underway, spewing an alarming amount of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas accelerating climate change.
The plant and others like it undermine China’s aim of being a global leader on efforts to limit climate change.
The plant, in the country’s far west, converts coal to synthetic natural gas. The process, called coal-to-gas or coal gasification, has been criticized by Chinese and foreign scholars and policy makers. For one thing, it is relatively expensive. It also requires enormous amounts of water, which exacerbates the chronic water crisis in northern China. And worst of all, critics say, it emits more carbon dioxide than traditional methods of energy production, even other coal-based ways.
“It is extremely irrational to develop coal-to-gas technology,” Li Junfeng, a climate change and energy adviser to the government, wrote in 2015 in China Energy News, a publication managed by People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper. He added that coal-to-gas was “unfit to become a national strategy.”
Despite such denunciations and a continuing policy debate, at least four such plants have begun operating in China in the past four years, pushed by local governments and state-owned enterprises in coal-rich regions. Dozens more have been under consideration.
No other country is considering building coal-to-gas plants on this scale.
Why is coal gasification so carbon intensive compared to simply burning coal?
To produce gas from coal, more than half the coal has to be converted into CO2 just to produce the gas. More coal may have to be burned to maintain the extreme pressures and temperatures required for this chemical process. This wasteful conversion process effectively doubles the amount of coal required to deliver the same energy.
All coal gasification processes are variations on the following;
3C (i.e., coal) + O2 + H2O → H2 + 3CO (carbon monoxide)
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (hydrogen gas)
The hydrogen from the gasification process can be combined with yet more coal to produce methane or propane or other hydrocarbons.
(See more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_gasification)
At least some steps of the process are exothermic, so some of the heat from the reaction can potentially be recovered and used to power the system. But the process is still very wasteful – think tar sands on steroids.
The process is economically viable, despite the waste. Similar processes were used in the early 20th century by Western countries, to provide town gas to households.
The need to alleviate politically embarrassing and potentially life threatening gas shortages will make it difficult to refuse the coal gasification plan. The coal gasification plants will alleviate the heat and power gas shortage, improve Chinese energy security, and will drastically reduce pollution in major Chinese cities. More coal will be burned, far greater quantities of CO2 will be emitted, but the pollution from burning that coal will be shifted away from heavily populated cities to remote coal mining regions.