(Casper Star Tribune, September 25) – Last week I led a delegation of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs to China’s Shanxi, where I was invited to give a talk at an international low-carbon development conference organized by the Shanxi provincial government. While our group was there, we had numerous meetings with provincial government officials and visited several coal-based and natural gas production facilities. The University of Wyoming also sent a delegation to the conference, which included State Senators Michael von Flatern and Jeff Wasserburger. Mark Northam and John Jiao of the University’s School of Energy Resources also gave presentations.
Why did we go? Shanxi and Wyoming are the largest coal-producing states/provinces in the two largest carbon-emitting countries in the world. Together, they account for 17.7 percent of total global coal production. Since coal is a major source of power production for the near future and not about to go away any time soon, if we are realistic and responsible, Wyoming and Shanxi must learn from each other in terms of responsible coal use and, in particular, reducing carbon emissions from coal as fast as possible.
One of the things our group learned again is that Shanxi is embarked on a process of energy transformation on a massive scale. As president of the only independent, bipartisan public policy research center in Wyoming dealing with climate change and other global issues, I am often asked whether China is serious about reducing carbon emissions. My answer is yes, and Shanxi is in the lead.
The province envisions a transition from a high carbon intensity economy, producing over 900 million tons/year of coal, to low-carbon development. They are determined to throw every tool at their disposal into this effort, including diversification of the industrial structure, closing down of old and inefficient power plants and other facilities, installation of state-of-the-art coal gasification equipment, and deployment of renewable energy sources.
One of these tools is energy saving through utilization of waste products from energy production. We saw this in a coal-fired power plant that utilized waste heat from generating power to heat apartments in nearby cities. We also visited a coal mining operation that made use of methane extracted from the mines to generate power. Another facility, the Lu’an Coal-to-Chemical demonstration plant, captures carbon dioxide from the liquefaction process and combines it with other gases to fuel a gas turbine for power production.
The Lu’an facility is actually a demonstration plant for a larger production facility that is now under construction. That is the other thing Chinese coal companies know how to do: mount large-scale demonstration projects to demonstrate technologies for improved coal use. At 160,000 tons/year of diesel fuel, the Lu’an demonstration project is large by U.S. standards. The full production facility will be 10 times as large, with a production capacity of 1.8 million tons/year.
U.S. coal companies, by contrast, generally don’t do technology demonstrations. But what if a Chinese company came to Wyoming to demonstrate its carbon capture technology utilizing Wyoming coal? A Wyoming demonstration plant could have the advantage of showing this technology to the world, at the same time as Wyoming could benefit from demonstrating that the technology worked with its coal.
Wyoming can benefit from such experiences. In the space of 10 short years, the U.S. has lost 10 percent of its coal-fired power capacity. As the nation’s principal coal supplier, Wyoming urgently wants answers. We need China’s experience and capabilities to help us navigate these uncharted waters.
But China needs us, too. Of 20 speakers in a supposedly international conference, only six came from abroad, and five of these came from the U.S., including three from Wyoming. Shanxi almost stands alone in facing these transitions. The Chinese can learn from Wyoming’s managerial expertise, policy and regulatory experience, and – most importantly — ethic of environmental responsibility, as we have seen again and again when Chinese officials visit Yellowstone National Park.
Transforming energy systems is a huge undertaking with enormous financial, technological and policy risks in the face of the biggest global risk which we all share in every part of the world. Ushering the energy sources of the past to energy sources of the future will take time and diligent management at all levels and places. Through a Wyoming-Shanxi clean energy partnership, these two carbon states can give each other confidence and encouragement to make hard decisions, learn from each other’s successes and failures, and forge ahead for global change. In these times of threat to our global environment, we have no better choice.