While discussions of Chinese energy policy have often focused on its prodigious burning of coal for electricity production, there’s been very little coverage of its plans to massively expand its use of coal for production of synthetic natural gas (AKA substitute natural gas). China has already approved nine large-scale SNG plants this year, with total capacity of 37.1 billion m3 of natural gas per year, and 30 more are in the planning stages, with a combined capacity of 120 billion m3. To put the magnitude of this commitment in perspective, the pioneering Great Plains Synfuels Plant in the United States has a capacity of only 1.5 billion m3.
A recent article in Nature Climate Change makes a strong case that this path could prove environmentally disastrous. Authors Chi-Yen Yang and Robert B. Jackson outline the stark implications of a commitment to SNG. SNG produces life-cycle GHG emissions approximately seven times that of conventional natural gas, as well as 26-82% high than pulverized coal-fired power production for generation of electricity. Overall, the combined projected carbon dioxide production of all of the approved and projected plans could result in an “astonishing” ˜111 billion tons of carbon dioxide over 40 years, severely undercutting any prospects for reduction of GHG emissions over the next half century. The plants would also require tremendous water resources, dramatic exacerbating water shortages in several regions already facing substantial water stress. In analyzing the economics of such plants, the authors conclude that because such plants would continue to be operated for as long as revenues exceeded fuel and operation and maintenance costs (even without recovery of initial capital investments), there’s a very real danger of technological lock-in and slowing of market penetration of renewable energy sources.
Is China about to render its bottom-up commitments under the UNFCCC chimerical?