The head of the IEA Clean Coal Centre says moves by the World Bank and other institutions to end investment in coal-fired power plants would be ‘misguided.’

Dr Andrew Minchener OBE told Power Engineering International that this strategy would be detrimental when it comes to reducing emissions as developing countries would still forge ahead with coal power, but choose not to integrate clean coal technology.

“The World Bank is changing their lending criteria to end funding of coal-fired plants in these countries – personally I think that is a misguided approach. The rationale behind it is if we don’t fund coal and it doesn’t get built we won’t get the emissions, “Dr Minchener told PEi.

“The reality is that these plants will still get built because these countries need the power and they don’t necessarily have alternative options to coal but it will cost them more to build it. So they will skimp in the efficiency systems or the environmental control systems and what you are left with is the opposite of what the World Bank and others thought they would achieve.”

Critics of clean coal point to the failure of carbon capture and storage technology to go beyond demonstration phase. There is much rhetoric arguing why the Earth’s remaining coal reserves should remain in the ground. Yet Minchener says such views are not grounded in reality.
Dr Andrew Minchener
“What I say to critics is that you have to recognise that the world is not going to move away from coal overnight – as some of them would have you close every coal plant tomorrow – we’re not going back to an agrarian economy.”

Minchener says coal providers and users have to continue to look at using the coal efficiently, minimising the amount of coal used for a given output. He adds that there are technologies available now that are significantly better than those that are in the field at present.

In the future he advocates what he sees as a pragmatic vision – where a clean coal system with CCS attached becomes commonplace.

“We should ultimately be looking to clean energy systems where it is possible to do so, coal with those sorts of systems in place re-CCS would form a valuable part of the overall energy mix, it shouldn’t just be looked upon as simply a transition to renewables and nuclear.”

But what about CCS – why is not being embraced as a solution by the more pragmatic governments if, indeed, it offers the key solution to the world’s energy trilemma?

Minchener says it’s the crunch question with the economies of scale and investment needed thus far stopping it from gaining momentum outside of oil recovery projects.

“The irony is when you look at it through the cost of CO2 avoidance it’s not that expensive – but its big upfront capital and that’s the problem. It’s got to be driven by regulation and emission standards being brought in and the Americans are trying to push that forward to an extent although they have the benefit of large amounts of natural gas to cushion them while they are doing so.”

Clean coal is also offered as a suitable choice for Europe, which has in recent years had great difficulty in grappling with the energy trilemma.

While when it comes to emissions, the bloc is small in comparison to China and India, a definitive place for clean coal may not be the negative option it first appears.

“Europe has to do more than just tweak its policy. You can get so far with renewables and get so far with nuclear and then natural gas; when you look at that policy, much of Europe’s gas comes from Russia which indicates that’s not a good idea in terms of security of supply. Indeed there has been a lot of lobbying of the European Commission and Parliament about it due to that recognition.”

Perhaps surprisingly the world’s biggest polluter from a coal-fired perspective is also a role model in the development and adoption of clean coal according to Dr Minchener.

Up until 2005 and a sea change in attitudes, China didn’t have much of a track record for the deployment of efficient technologies in its coal fleet.

“You may snort with derision but China is at the forefront of clean coal technology,. China has now put policies in place and continues to put policies in place to drive the clean coal sector to more advanced plants, with state-of-the-art emission control systems and very high-efficiency plants.”

“The drivers here are building bigger plants – building gigawatt plants- a very large unit which provides economies of scale, using very high pressure, very high temperature steam to get much higher overall efficiencies to the plant so more of the energy is utilised to produce power than on a typical plant.”
Waieaoqiao plant
“To put that in context, Drax in the UK can probably achieve an efficiency of 39 per cent. The Waieaoqiao plant in Shanghai achieves 46 per cent. There are newer programmes trying to push material development to allow for higher steam temperatures and higher efficiencies and if those are successful the figure gets up to around 51 or  52 per cent which is an enormous leap on what we have at present.”

“The other point to make is that the higher the efficiency plant you’ve got the better it is if you are subsequently to put CCS on the back of that.”

China and India are the obvious candidates when it comes to ensuring clean coal adoption is prioritised, but, according to Minchener, it’s the whole of Asia and the totality of that reliance on coal to drive developing nations forwards that needs to inform a more enlightened approach to clean coal technology.

“Although China and India will dominate coal use, these other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam are significant by our standards. When you look at the cost of a coal-fired plant against a gas-fired plant, pretty much for the whole of Asia coal will win out as a low cost option. What you don’t want are inefficient low-cost options because that will counter all the good things that are being done.”