And the company has begun to install more chemistry that will capture smog-forming nitrogen oxides before they billow out the smokestack as well—albeit at the cost of some additional carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere.
In addition, burning the coal in the first place has become more expensive; the price of coal has been allowed to rise by the NDRC—particularly the higher-quality coal shipped by rail from Inner Mongolia. "That means our profit is coming down, indeed we are facing great cost pressure," Shi says. "We blend coals in order to optimize the cost. Our units are designed to burn coal from Inner Mongolia but we blend some brown coal and local coal into the mix."
But, regardless of China's national goals, the Dandong Power Plant will not get a chemistry set to control its greenhouse gas emissions anytime soon, although the Huaneng Group is responsible for China's only two existing carbon-capture demonstration projects. The technology is simply too expensive to add, in addition to requiring even more coal to be burned to provide the power to run that chemistry set in the first place. "It depends on the will of the [Huaneng] Group," Shi says, and whether the energy company is willing—or ordered—to install such greenhouse gas pollution controls in future.
And coal technologies that might make such carbon capture—and ultimately storage deep beneath the ground—feasible, such as turning the coal into a gas before burning it, are not favored by at least some of those in charge at the NDRC. "[Gasified coal's] cost is no cheaper than nuclear power," Zhang says. "Frankly speaking, personally, I do not quite support [this] technology."
In a bid to displace some of the hegemony of coal, the NDRC has mandated that companies like Huaneng generate at least 8 percent of their electricity from so-called "new energy"—such as wind turbines. A vast pool of money derived from a 0.04-renminbi (0.006-cent) fee charged for every kilowatt-hour of electricity sold in the country helps subsidize such efforts, leading to the addition of some 12 gigawatts worth of wind turbines in northeastern China alone, or roughly 5.5 percent of total power generation. "Areas without wind resources subsidize the areas with wind resources," explains Wang Gang, executive vice president of Northeast China Grid Co., Ltd., via a translator.
Households pay roughly 0.5 renminbi (0.075 cent) per kilowatt-hour of electricity. "That kind of subsidy doesn't come from the government's pocket; it comes from each Chinese consumer's pocket," explains public affairs director Thomas Yao of Goldwind Science and Technology, a wind turbine manufacturer.
But the wind is unreliable: In Liaoning Province, which encompasses Dandong, the winds are strongest in fall and winter and at night—exactly when coal-fired power plants are most needed for their other output: heat. In fact, the Dandong Power Plant is now completing a retrofit to provide local heat in order to replace some 132 smaller boilers in the port, part of more than 7,000 megawatts of such small, dirty units shut down nationwide since 2005 in a bid to reduce air pollution. "The coldest areas need heating from September to May," Wang says. "In winter, we cannot reduce the capacity or generation of thermal indefinitely; we need to keep a minimum in order to ensure heating."