02/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can the U.S. and China Cooperate on Coal?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu's testimony reminds us that the coal challenge is global, and its solutions must be global too.

In his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee two weeks ago, Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu gave a succinct but eloquent insight into how we might effectively address the daunting global challenge of coal:

"Two-thirds of the known coal reserves in the world lie in only four countries: the United States, first and foremost, followed by India, China and Russia. India and China, Russia and the United States, I believe, will not turn their back on coal, so it is imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible. And so for that reason, I think again, my optimism as a scientist, we will develop those technologies to capture a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that is emitted from coal plants and safely sequester them. So if confirmed as Secretary of Energy I will work very hard to extensively develop these technologies so that the United States and the rest of the world can use them."

China faces a difficult challenge when it comes to coal. With 20 percent of the world's population and an economy that continues to grow, China has 14 percent of the world's coal reserves, but less than 1 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves. While it is actively developing its non-carbon power sources -- hydropower, nuclear, newer alternative energies -- rapid growth will still not be enough to replace coal as a core part of its expanding electricity infrastructure.

The good news is that China recognizes this challenge, and is taking steps to address it. China's energy planners have already focused on one of the key areas Dr. Chu emphasized in his testimony: energy efficiency. In addition to setting national efficiency targets in all sectors, China has mandated that all new coal-fired power plants must employ the latest market-ready technology, known as super-critical and ultra super critical generation, and equip these new plants with pollution abatement equipment. According to recent Chinese Energy Research Institute data, average Chinese power plant efficiency is close to that reported by the OECD, and new plants going on line are much more efficient than this average.

As for capture and storage, China is already developing the very technologies that Dr. Chu mentioned. China's major power companies, led by energy giant Huaneng, are teaming up to build an advanced power plant (integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC) engineered to facilitate carbon capture. China's leading coal and oil companies, Shenhua and PetroChina respectively, are piloting efforts to capture CO2 at some of their facilities. These companies are even starting to plan how to integrate carbon capture and storage into future facilities.

As in the United States, these efforts are in the research and experimental phase, but the commitment behind them is impressive. In fact, China seems to be progressing much more quickly with commercial-scale demonstration than the United States. Many are betting that China will be among the first to build a power plant that can capture and store CO2.

As Dr. Chu's testimony hints, international cooperation in the effort to capture carbon from coal will be crucial. In fact, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and the Huaneng Group have committed funds to the FutureGen demonstration project, a U.S.-government funded advanced power plant with carbon capture and storage. (The U.S. government terminated funding in 2008, and the project's status is currently in question.)

Chu's testimony suggests that the U.S. may soon revive its R&D programs, which could lead to new research and development opportunities for both countries. We need to nurture and accelerate these opportunities, and encourage partnerships that allow for two-way learning. As the Chinese have moved ahead swiftly, they have acquired knowledge from which our research programs and companies can benefit, and they have undoubtedly encountered technological challenges that we can work together to solve.

Sarah Forbes, a Senior Associate at WRI, co-authored this post.