MIT: Dirty coal to blame for China pollution

In a rare independent study of China's energy sector, researchers have found that the problem with China's coal power generation is not that its power plants lack cleaner technology.

In a rare independent study of China's energy sector, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that the problem with China's coal power generation is not that its power plants lack cleaner technology.

The emissions are definitely higher than they could be, the report found, but the culprit is usually low-quality coal rather than low-tech plants. As an MIT statement explains:

Lower-grade coal, which produces high levels of sulfur emissions, can be obtained locally, whereas the highest-grade anthracite comes mostly from China's northwest and must travel long distances to the plants, adding greatly to its cost.

The researchers gathered their own data instead of relying on Chinese government statistics, which can be unreliable. This may not sound like a big deal, but even large international organizations often, or even primarily, depend on government numbers.

"The kinds of technology currently being adopted in China are not cheap," lead researcher Edward S. Steinfeld said in the statement. "They're not buying junk, and in some cases, the plants are employing state-of-the-art technology."

There could be room for improvement in technology, however. A pilot power plant capable of using carbon-capture technology opened in China in July, and widespread efforts on energy continue. But this MIT report underlines the challenge of cleaning up power generation when the fuel is dirtier than usual.

The full report is available in PDF.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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