MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
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BLOCK: This week, as part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, we've been bringing you stories from China.
Today, our story is about coal and about methane.- that's a gas released during the coal-mining process.
China is the largest producer of coal in the world and the largest consumer. The country is expected to build as many as 500 new coal-fired power plants over the next decade, and there are consequences for the climate. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, so the country is trying to modernize its coal-fired power plants, and it's also trying to reduce emissions at coal mines by capturing methane.
NORRIS: On my recent visited to China, I spent time with one of the key people behind that effort.
Dr. HUANG SHENGCHU (President, China Coal Information Institute, China): We're on the way to Shanxi coal mines.
NORRIS: That's Dr. Huang Shengchu. He's one of China's leading experts on coal and methane — the gas that's a natural byproduct of coal mining. Last year, he accompanied Premier Wen Jiabao on a trip to Japan to discuss climate issues. This spring, I companied him on a trip to Shanxi province, China's coal country.
Mr. HUANG: You know, in summer it's very beautiful here, very green.
NORRIS: Huang is the president of the China Coal Information Institute, a government think tank. He's 50, though he seems much younger because of his jovial manner. He wears his authority lightly perhaps because of his humble roots. He was raised in a poor rural village in southern China. As a boy, his big dream was to drive a tractor. It was the only motorized vehicle he'd seen. He was the top student in his class and he earned a spot at a university up north. He graduated with a degree in engineering and became an expert in coal mine safety, and that is how he first became interested in methane.
Now before we go on, it might be helpful to have a short primer on methane. As we said, methane is a gas. It exists naturally in coal beds and it's highly explosive. It's often the cause of mine accidents.
In the 1950's, China began recovering methane to make mines safer. Then, as now, most of that captured methane is just released into the air. And that's a problem because methane is a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide and, therefore, more dangerous to the environment.
And this is where Dr. Huang comes in. He saw methane as a problem with potential.
Dr. HUANG: (Speaking in foreign language)
NORRIS: About 10 years ago, Huang presented a proposal to use captured methane to produce power in China. Now, up to that point, some of the larger coal mines were using captured methane in kitchens for cooking. But Dr. Huang had something bigger in mind.
Dr. HUANG: (Through Translator) In the 1990's, we've learned that Australia was successfully turning methane into power using caterpillar gas engines. They then transferred that power to the grid.
NORRIS: Huang thought China could do the same thing. He believed that recovering and repurposing methane could help protect the environment and reduce the country's dependence on coal.
As a government researcher with key contacts, he was in a position to make it happen. He was working with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Asian Development Bank. And after a number of field studies, he recommended building a methane power plant similar to Australia's at Sihe Mine in Shanxi province.
Dr. HUANG: Sihe Mine is very modern. It's one of the largest coal mines in China and largest coal mine in the world.
NORRIS: Huang thought the Sihe Mine could serve as a model for the rest of the country because it was big, modern and state-run. Now, 10 years later, the Sihe Mine houses the largest methane power plant in the world.
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NORRIS: When we arrived at Sihe, Huang is greeted as a VIP. His visit - and the fact that he arrived with a foreign news crew - drew quite a crowd. There was the chief engineer, his staff, two local television crews and still photographers. Altogether, seven or eight carloads of people - a mini motorcade that trailed us during our tour of the site.
Our first stop is the entrances to the mine shaft itself. I almost have to remind myself I'm at a coal mine. Digging for coal is dirty work, yet this facility is bright and modern. Safety posters lined the wall, but even they look kind of chipper. It's a far cry from the grimy images linked to coal mining in China, a country where thousands die in mining deaths each year. We should note that Sihe, while modern, is not immune from danger. There was an explosion here in 2006 that killed 23 miners.
But from our tour, it's clear that the Sihe Mine has become a model.
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NORRIS: We eventually make our way to the pumping station.
Dr. HUANG: This is - pump methane from underground.
NORRIS: And finally to the place where methane gets turned into energy. Sixty gas engines manufactured by Caterpillar in La Fayette, Indiana, and sold to the coal mine for more than $50 million. When we visited, power generation had not yet begun.
Caterpillar engineer, Robert Miller, visiting from Alpharetta, Georgia, said they were still running some final tests.
Mr. ROBERT MILLER (Engineer, Caterpillar, Inc.): We're waiting for permission to parallel to utility and then when we get to do that, we'll start cranking the engines and producing power. We're hoping within a week to begin to start producing power out to the utility.
NORRIS: The generator sets are so new and so yellow, they almost look like giant toys. When fully up and running, this plant will produce 120 megawatts of capacity. That's enough to power 82,000 American homes. It's all much bigger than what Dr. Huang imagined 10 years ago.
Dr. HUANG: At the very beginning, nothing here, and today, so many modern power generators on site. I'm so excited.
NORRIS: Many who studied the environment say what's happening here represents one of the best tools in China's fight against climate change. It's helping China meet its two main goals — producing greenhouse gas emissions and finding sources of energy other than coal.
Huang, a scientist who sees the world through equations, says that adds up to opportunity. Opportunity that can be measured in the amount of methane captured in Chinese coal mines last year.
Dr. HUANG: 4.3 billion cubic meters. It's a lot.
NORRIS: And it's an increase over the previous year, up 26 percent, due to incentives the government offers to coal mines that capture methane. If all of that methane was turned into power, it could make a quite a dent in China's need for coal. Already, a small number of coal mines are operating new methane power plants, though on a much smaller scale.
It's a start, a baby step really, when you consider how many coal mines and coal plants there are in China. And as we drive back from our trip to this model project, the obstacles to change are right outside the car window.
Dr. HUANG: There are many, many private coal mines.
NORRIS: Huang points to several private coal mines along the road. Small, rag-tag operations with rickety equipment and no sign of innovation, let alone methane recovery.
Dr. HUANG: (Through translator) These small coal mines are a big problem for China. They're managed poorly, their technology is backwards. They have more accidents and they produce more waste.
NORRIS: The government has been trying to close down these operations - many are illegal. And they've had some success. But with China's unyielding need for coal, new ones keep popping up. Huang says halting that is both a headache and a priority.
Dr. HUANG: (Through translator) The central government is very clear about its intentions to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency. The political pressure they are putting on local officials will make a difference.
NORRIS: I was struck by Huang's steely optimism. But I was also struck by an old Chinese saying I heard during my visit — the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. It's another way of saying who knows if the long arm of the government can ever reach those freelance mines. With 10,000 coal mines across this country, can enough be accomplished in time to truly make a difference?
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BLOCK: And about a month from now, we'll be bringing you a week of coverage from China. Robert Siegel and I will be reporting from the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. You can read about our plans and read some of our impressions of China at npr.org/chinadiary.