U.S., China Public and Private Sectors Cooperate on Clean Energy

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – U.S. and Chinese leaders from the public and private sectors met September 12-13 in Shanxi province – an informal gathering of technology and policy experts – to exchange views on using and promoting clean coal technology.

The meeting was arranged by the Jackson Hole [Wyoming] Center for Global Affairs and the Peoples Government of Shanxi Province in China, and sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, and other energy and environmental organizations.

The focus of the China Clean Coal Forum – co-chaired by Yu Youjun, governor of Shanxi province, and Grant Larson, president of the Wyoming state Senate – was coal gasification, a growing alternative to coal combustion that is a more efficient and more environmentally friendly way to produce electricity and other energy products from coal.

“The collaboration between Shanxi province and the state of Wyoming,” said Justin Swift, deputy assistant secretary for international affairs in the Office of Fossil Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “is an excellent example of state-to-state support.”

At the meeting, Swift gave an overview of coal gasification technology, its worldwide capacity and growth, and DOE’s gasification research and development program.

The Clean Coal Forum is the fifth in a series of unofficial meetings held to develop and implement an agenda for U.S.-China clean energy cooperation. The meetings arose from an alliance between the largest coal-producing regions in the United States and China – the state of Wyoming and the province of Shanxi.


Jackson Hole – in the 1800s the term “hole” described a high mountain valley – is a spectacular area in northwest Wyoming, known for its proximity to three national parks, vast mountainscapes, abundant wildlife and world-class skiing.

It is also home to the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, whose forward-looking membership created the U.S.-China Clean Energy Initiative.

The initiative began in 2003, when Jackson Hole resident John Turner, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs from 2001 to 2005, invited Shanxi officials to his hometown to discuss environmental issues important to both regions.

Three meetings took place in 2003 and 2004, in Shanxi and Jackson Hole, covering a range of energy topics and involving experts and officials from both regions.

“The doors have opened up in the age of globalization,” said David Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, “to include so many different potential partners from so many sectors on common issues.”

The initiative is also a vehicle for involving the private sector, Wendt said, which has “the resources and technology to make the necessary investments in clean energy priorities.”

The collaborators in Wyoming and Shanxi, Wendt said, “identified a strong interest in integrated gasification combined cycle, a coal gasification process, not coal combustion, that is by far the most energy-efficient process, and efficient in terms of other resources – water, for example – in using coal for electric power generation.”


In gasification, coal (or any other carbon-based feedstock) reacts with steam and oxygen or air at high temperature and pressure in an oxygen-lean atmosphere.

The process produces synthesis gas, or syngas, which is mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and smaller amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. Inorganic materials in the coal, like ash and metals, are converted to an inert material called slag that is used in construction and building.

Syngas is used to power turbines to generate electricity, and the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) is one way to do this. The IGCC process combines two “cycles,” meaning two kinds of turbines – combustion and steam. First, the syngas is burned in the combustion turbine, which drives a generator to produce electricity. The leftover “flue” gas is fed into a heat-recovery steam-generating unit, which extracts energy from the heated gas and produces steam. The steam feeds a steam turbine, which also drives a generator to produce electricity.

“In an IGCC plant,” said Gary Stiegel, technology manager for gasification at the DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pennsylvania, “the combustion [cycle] typically produces two thirds of the electricity and one third comes from the steam cycle.”


Because IGCC produces most of the electricity from the combustion cycle rather than the steam cycle, the process is more efficient and uses less water than standard coal combustion. There are other environmental benefits, like fewer emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur and nitrogen oxides and particulates.

The ease of capturing carbon dioxide – a critical part of the CO2 capture-and-storage process called carbon sequestration, which can help take the greenhouse gas CO2 out of the atmosphere – is another benefit of IGCC.

Meeting participants were interested in IGCC and carbon sequestration, Wendt said, “because the two are linked. IGCC is probably the most cost-effective technology for separating and capturing carbon dioxide, so it’s carbon-capture ready.”

Coal gasification is a versatile and clean way to convert coal into electricity, hydrogen and other energy products, but coal-based IGCC plants still are not fully commercial and IGCC is 10 percent to 20 percent more expensive than a conventional coal combustion plant.

“We need to find advanced technologies to drive those costs down,” Stiegel said, “and at DOE we’re working on a number of different projects to do that.”

IGCC capital costs are high, Wendt said, particularly in China where the comparative cost of putting in a standard coal-powered plant is much lower than in the United States.

“But the gap is narrowing is both countries and the benefits are enormous,” he added. “Our belief is that by bringing the parties together to understand these benefits and to reach an understanding on how they’re going to share the costs and the risks, this needed technology can get jump-started in China.”