ERDOS, China -- Shenhua Group Corp., one of China's coal giants, has built much of its success at the cost of climate change. Every year, the company digs hundreds of million of tons of coal out of the ground and sells this carbon-intensive energy source throughout China.
Meanwhile, its own plants consume a few million tons to generate power and chemicals, releasing a massive amount of climate-harming gas into the air.
But now, Shenhua is shifting its course. The clue is hidden in a coal-to-liquids plant here, deep in northern China's Gobi Desert. Workers heat, pressurize and process coal into diesel and other needed fuels, leaving liquid carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Then big refrigerated tank trucks drive in and carry that byproduct to a hillside 10 miles away.
There, the CO2 gets pumped down under pressure into a well and stored underground as deep as 8,000 feet. Through this project, the company says, it has prevented at least 46,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere since 2011.
The amount of released CO2 that Shenhua has prevented seems small, but it is a symbol of China's continuing efforts to develop a cutting-edge technology it calls carbon capture, utilization and storage, or CCUS. China started a few years ago and now has several pilot projects using different techniques running across the nation.
A few hundred miles south of Shenhua's project, another Chinese energy giant, ENN Group, is betting on a green, single-celled organism to reduce carbon emissions.
In a greenhouse-like lab, carbon dioxide captured from a nearby coal-fired power plant flows into hundreds of tubes and becomes an essential food supply for microalgae. While devouring one of coal's pollutants, the oil-rich algae can later be used to make biofuel.
And in Beijing and Shanghai, China Huaneng Group Corp. equipped its coal-fired power plants with carbon capture systems and sells the captured gas to makers of soft drinks. The move was at the government's order to green the image of the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo. The company continues to push forward, planning to trap 60 percent of carbon emissions in its Tianjin-based newly built power plant by 2016.
Much is expected of CCUS technology. Companies here hope to use it to cope with China's tightening greenhouse gas regulation. Politicians and climate activists view it as an answer for a crucial question: How can a country that largely runs -- and will continue running -- on coal make its contribution in the battle against climate change?
One stone, two birds
China has long been hooked on coal. In 2009, it consumed almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. And although the nation in recent years has been pushing hard to use other energy means, installing more wind and hydro power than elsewhere, experts say that won't shake coal's position as king of China's energy.
A 2009 research paper published in the journal Energy Procedia predicts that even if China achieves its 2030 target of energy efficiency improvement and clean energy use, more than half of its power supply will still come from coal. So the nation has to find a way to reduce the carbon dioxide its coal consumers emit.
But reducing China's own emissions might be a beneficial side note to a larger aim: marketing CCUS technology to other countries.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) noted in its 2012 report that the world will face growing difficulty in reducing emissions by improving energy efficiency or by using alternative energy sources because the low-hanging fruit in these ares will soon have been picked. As a result, the IEA scenario shows, using and storing captured carbon will be needed more, contributing to one-fifth of the global emissions reduction from the energy sector by 2050.
Beijing has set its mind on becoming a leader in CCUS. "The Chinese government has been actively pursuing and supporting a technology development agenda that very quickly allowed China to make a breakthrough in the new generation of various technologies, and carbon capture and storage technology development was at first riding on this wave," said Ellina Levina, an energy analyst at the International Energy Agency.