"What we hope is you don't make the same mistake we made, because I don't think either Chinese and the world can afford that," Hillary Clinton said last weekend, referring to the West's dirty industrialization, amid talk of working with China on climate change issues,.
She was speaking at Beijing's Taiyanggong Thermal Power Plant, a one-year-old gas-fired power plant that produces both electricity and steam with half the emissions and a third the water usage of an equivalent Chinese coal-fired plant. Said US Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern, "This is exactly the kind of thing the US and China should do more together."
Clinton with US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern and GE executives (Getty)
How trigeneration works
The Taiyanggong plant, China's first urban gas-fired trigeneration plant, generates 3.2 GWh of power per year and is estimated to cut 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year in electricity generation alone. It also means a cut in SO2, NOX, and particulates -- the other terrible stuff that comes out of China's untold numbers of coal-fired power plants.
In this system, natural gas is sent to the gas turbine for power generation. The flue gas is then sent to a heat recovery steam generator to generate steam with a high temperature and pressure. This steam drives the steam turbine to generate even more electrical power.
Meanwhile, the plant's waste steam also provides heating and cooling to Beijing's Taiyanggang neighborhood, an area of 40 square kilometers, making redundant 78 low efficiency boilers.
While a cogeneration plant offers combined heating-and-power (CHP) through the conversion of waste heat -- a technology John Laumer has called "deadly sexy" -- a trigeneration plant also generates chilled water using that heat. Thus it's sometimes referred to as a CHCP, or combined heating-cooling-and-power plant.
According to Xinhua, the plant is 13 percent more efficient than the most advanced coal-fired power plant in the world. Its dramatically more efficient than most Chinese or American coal-fired power plants, where 33% efficiency is the norm. That means 2/3rds of these plants' heat goes to waste.
Owned by Beijing Energy Investment Holding Co. and SP Power Development Co. Ltd., the plant has received credits under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism, the program that pays for clean energy projects in the developing world. Some have criticized the program for its overemphasis on Chinese projects, and its certification program, which sometimes counts dams and other questionable projects as CO2 reducers.
Where are our trigen plants?
The sound economics and ethics of cogeneration and trigeneration are clear, but the technology is spreading only slowly. New York launched its first trigeneration plant last year, but as Forbes.com reports, regulatory hurdles and the complexities of building the plants have kept many stuck in the pipeline.
Clinton's visit was a clear attempt to step away from the finger-pointing over climate and connect the dots between economic and environmental interests in both the US and China. The plant is based on generators and advanced super-critical gas turbines by General Electric, which also services the plant.
Partnerships between US and Chinese companies can be fraught with intellectual property (IP) issues. Consider how until recently, a number of Chinese cars looked suspiciously like US models. But Chinese officials continue to insist that technology transfer be a key part of climate agreements between the West and China. The West will likely remain hesitant until IP protection sees greater advances.
Increasingly though the Chinese are developing their own hi-tech solutions. When I spoke to Ferdinando "Nani" Becalli-Falco, President and CEO of GE International, at the start of last summer's Beijing Olympics, he explained why GE needs to be "more Chinese than the Chinese"
: "[The country is] becoming a creative technologist. My mother used to have a German refrigerator, now she has a Chinese one, a Haier. So they've begun to build products that are competitive from a technology point of view and a price point of view."
In the clean energy sector, companies like Suntech are paving the way for home-grown and potentially huge solutions.
In the short term, as Chinese officials talk about shutting down coal plants and Western countries seek common ground with China on climate change, the best proof of the potential for clean energy in China are projects like Taiyanggong.
Read more details about Taiyanggong at the UN"s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
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