Last year, directors of the U.S. Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and National Energy Technology Laboratory signed a memorandum of understanding with researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to push research and development efforts in carbon capture and storage technologies.
There have been many such memos and initiatives, but this time, top lab directors are convinced that things are different.
As of last month, the memo has given life -- and funding -- to three separate research projects meant to accelerate development of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, under the two nations' Clean Energy Partnership. The partnership will tackle issues around the cost of deploying the technology in China, improving gasification methods, and developing more efficient synthetic gas-to-natural gas conversions.
The research areas are not new problems. For the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which has a long track record working with China, what has changed for the laboratory's leadership is the level of commitment it sees from its international partner.
"We've had plenty of MOUs and meeting and dinners and pictures," Mike Davis, associate director for PNNL's Energy and Environment Directorate, said in an interview. Not without their own merit, he said, previous agreements were also tests of mutual commitment that eventually lead to agreements like the one that initiated the U.S.-China Clean Energy Partnership.
Previous collaborations have taken place largely on the level of individual scientists, said Jud Virden, the directorate's chief technology officer and the architect of the new agreement. Individual scientists would often collaborate on small projects with colleagues across the Pacific.
Now, said Mike Kluse, director of PNNL, "we're seeing institutional commitment."
The push to create the partnership came, in large part, they said, from Lu Yongxiang, the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This new partnership is a step up to working institution-to-institution rather than scientist-to-scientist.
An American leader in Beijing
PNNL's leadership has also been convinced of China's resolution not only through Beijing's new National Institute of Clean-and-Low-Carbon Energy, but by the fact that it has been put under the management of an American. He is Carlos Cabrera, president and CEO of the new institute, most recently retired as chairman of Honeywell's UOP LLC.
Another big motivator for these partnerships is, in some ways, even more straightforward: The two countries need each other.
"We're all in the same boat, in terms of emissions," said Davis, director of the Energy and Environment Directorate.
China and the United States are the two largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, but while half of U.S. electricity needs are supplied by coal-fired power plants, in China, coal represents roughly 70 percent of all energy consumption.
Although China has vast coal resources, it lacks the diverse energy portfolio found in the United States, where natural gas is also plentiful. The relatively small quantities of petroleum and natural gas in China have also strained the country's production of chemicals, such as those used in certain fertilizers. This has resulted in an industrial base that is, overall, much more carbon-intensive than the United States'. The Chinese government is also motivated by a desire to reduce air pollution.
The technological advantages are clear for PNNL's Chinese partners, Davis said. "I think the Chinese acknowledge that the U.S. does very, very well in terms of discovery, and they do very, very well in terms of deployment. I think we have to give them credit for that."
Chinese research institutions have also matured significantly in recent years, said Virden, PNNL's chief technology officer. In recent years, national labs and research universities have seen an increasing number of Chinese scientists moving back to China as the country shifts toward becoming a first-rate scientific power.
"There's just an explosion in their research base and the number of institutes, and really the quality of the researchers over there," said Virden, something China has worked on for about 15 years.
A huge advantage of working in China, Davis said, is "the ability to make policy in a day."
The hurdles to CCS deployment in China
On July 1, the International Energy Agency released an updated version of its Energy Technology Perspectives report from two years ago.
The report presents a scenario for reducing carbon emissions from a variety energy sources through several technologies, worldwide.
"The next decade is critical," the report says. "If emissions do not peak by around 2020 and decline steadily thereafter, achieving the needed 50% reduction by 2050 will become much more costly. In fact, the opportunity may be lost completely."
The IEA's BLUE Map scenario, which projects emissions of carbon dioxide into the year 2050, suggests that global emissions could potentially be reduced to roughly 14 gigatons -- half the emission rate estimated for 2010.
According to the BLUE Map scenario, China should account for 27 percent of global reductions in carbon by 2050, the largest reduction by a single country.
The IEA went further, stating that among different strategies, such as increased nuclear energy and fuel efficiency, the deployment of CCS could account for 18 percent of China's overall carbon reduction -- a prediction based on a technology that has yet to achieve large-scale deployment in the country.
Yet IEA's CCS Roadmap from 2009 "concludes that 100 large-scale CCS projects should be in operation by 2020 to enable widespread deployment in the following decades."
Can the inertia of cheap energy be overcome?
Even to some of the more optimistic advocates for CCS technology, 100 large-scale projects seems "staggering," said Sarah Forbes, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. CCS has not been proved at scale, she said, and there are still a lot of details to be worked out with how to regulate a Chinese CCS project.
Analysts at Stanford University's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development (PESD), argued in a paper last year that "China simultaneously presents the most challenging and critical test for CCS deployment at scale." The paper, titled "The Real Drivers of Carbon Capture and Storage in China and Implications for Climate Policy," was released last August.
China's lead in terms of coal use and carbon emissions has made it central to international efforts to reduce climate change. But "absent bankrupting the treasuries of several developed countries," Richard Morse, lead author on the PESD paper, said in an interview, widespread deployment of CCS technologies in China is not realistic from an economic standpoint.
The energy pricing system in China, Morse said, is already strained from subsidies to the existing coal industry and development projects like new nuclear plants and advanced coal plants. Abundant, cheap energy has fueled economic growth and raised the average quality of life in China, but the subsidies to the system also create long-term challenges.
"You would need fundamental reform and restructuring of the Chinese power market before any type of serious deployment of CCS would be viable" on a scale that would have meaningful implications for global climate, said Morse.
Without a price on carbon, which few countries have been willing to implement, Morse said he remains pessimistic about CCS's possibilities.
A main driver for Chinese interest in CCS technology, according to Morse and his colleagues, is the development of new technologies.
The potential for China to play host to almost half a dozen CCS pilot projects has some in the Obama administration nervous.
Chu sees the U.S. falling behind in technology
Speaking at a public meeting of the Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage in Washington, D.C., Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted his own concern: "Our prosperity in the United States is at stake here. If we do not get moving the way Europe and China and other parts of the world are moving [on CCS], we will be importing these technologies 10 and 20 years from today." This is a position that China also wants to avoid.
But, on developing CCS for dealing with global climate change, Morse noted: "If that technology is going to go anywhere, we've got to be working with China."
Julian Wong, a senior policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, said that despite the challenges in deploying CCS, both in general and in China, there are also great opportunities.
"The geology of China is very favorable to CCS," he said. A PNNL study titled "Regional Opportunities for Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage in China" showed that, according to initial reports, many of the potential sites for carbon storage are situated close to geologic formations that could be used to store the sequestered carbon.
In Wong's observation, CCS technology will first be applied to China's industrial sector, which accounts for about 28 percent of the country's stationary carbon emissions. And there may be the potential for the introduction of a small test case of a carbon tax as soon as 2014.
"This is not a technological battle," said George Peridas, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center. "As soon as the policy elements fall in place, in the right sequence, the U.S. Senate, then international," he said. "When that happens, CCS will be seen in a different light."
"Action," Peridas said, "has to come from the West."