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No wall around China

Coal is the miracle fuel, potent and plentiful. It has been at the heart of U.S. prosperity, providing 49 percent of electricity, a form of energy so useful we often just call it “power.” In coal-rich Colorado, nearly 70 percent of electricity is created by burning coal. In Wyoming it’s 97 percent. The story is much the same in China, just lately emerging from poverty into prosperity.

There, hundreds of new power plants have been built in recent decades, supplying 60 percent of the electricity used to power motors, compressors and other devices that have made the brand, “Made in China,” ubiquitous in Wal-Mart and virtually every other American store.  In this prosperity also lies potential peril. Hundreds of miners die every year in China, more yet in the United States. Far greater catastrophe is posed by accumulating greenhouse gases. Best known is carbon dioxide, now nearing 390 parts per million in the atmosphere, up from 250 parts in pre-industrial times. The burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels is believed the primary cause of this planet-warming greenhouse gas.


This coal-fired electricity power plant in China consumes approximately 6,000 metric tons of coal a day.

In this simple trans-Pacific arc also lies a metaphor for this year’s Fourth Annual Sustainable Opportunities Summit: Global Sustainability in Denver on March 17-19. Richard Eidlin, a CORE member who helped pick speakers and themes, says the goal is to think about the complicated issues holistically, to see how the pieces fit together, to better detect opportunities and solutions. “These sessions are designed to cover a range of issues – be they forestry, or coal, water depletion or corporate behavior in the marketplace – and try to make a linkage between these specific issues and how they are all connected,” says Eidlin, who has been engaged in the renewable energy industry for 15 years.

“We are trying to point out that sustainability is a comprehensive view of the world, and it is a set of actions that lead to a certain set of consequences, which could be beneficial or negative in impacts to the environment and society.” The complexities are apparent in the Chinese-American calculus about coal. China in 2007 surpassed the United States as the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide. However, per capita emissions remain far less. But in a way, Chinese pollution is American pollution. After all, China has become America’s factory. In outsourcing our production, we’ve also outsourced our pollution. Except, given the global nature of warming, pollution is never entirely outsourced.

David Wendt, a speaker at this year’s conference in Denver, understands these complexities. He has led a delegation for several years from Wyoming’s Jackson Hole to Shanxi, China’s premier coal-mining province. There is great symbolism in the exchange. Teton County, Wyo., – the location of Jackson Hole – often leads the United States in per capita income. Shanxi is poor, as mining regions often are. But in global warming, they share a common fate – and hence the need for a shared solution.

“I believe very strongly that neither the United States nor China can make really significant progress on the whole action agenda of clean coal without cooperation,” Wendt says. He spent several decades in the nonprofit sector of Washington, D.C., deftly pairing players from different sectors to achieve results, a task he now continues as president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs. Wendt’s mission in China this year is to encourage the trapping of methane, otherwise known as natural gas, which is now escaping from mines. Methane is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. Trapping the gas to heat homes or make electricity also produces carbon dioxide, but the net effect is much improved. However, infrastructure must be installed.

While governments are involved, the private sector can also show initiative. Wendt points to a 120-megawatt power plant constructed in China by Caterpillar, the American manufacturer of heavy equipment. The plant burns methane from a nearby coal mine. “It’s not huge as far as power plant production goes, but in terms of methane, it’s large,” he says. In coal, both China and the United States have overlapping interests. First, they must both use the energy more efficiently. But they both have an interest in minimizing carbon emissions. The Chinese, Wendt says, are more advanced in the technology of gasifying coal. The United States has the edge in sequestering carbon emissions, a task that some believe impossible on a large scale. Ways must be found to share that intellectual capital, Wendt says. The private sector must also demonstrate leadership, which “sometimes requires sticking your neck out,” he adds.

Another speaker at this year’s conference, Michael Totten, of Conservation International, has been working with corporations to examine their options. For example, drawing in the aid of Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, located at Old Snowmass and Boulder, he helped Wal-Mart study its supply chain. Crucial to that supply chain is transportation by trucks. If weight can be reduced, less fuel is required.
“Within two months Amory had persuaded them they could double, or even triple, their efficiency by accelerating the light-weighting of their trucks,” Totten says. That improved efficiency makes sense no matter what the cost of oil. Biofuels, while attractive, require a higher price point. The lesson: Efficiency is the first order of business. The challenges, says Totten, who is based in Denver but travels across the globe, are not so much technological or financial. Rather, the need is to examine the old in new ways. For example, why should the profits of utilities be determined purely by the volume of heat or electricity delivered? Rather, the profit should be determined by the service rendered. If the service can be produced more cheaply in other ways, that is better for the environment, and ultimately better for the businesses.

Maximizing of power in efficiency in China could displace half of the existing coal-fired power plants, he says. Wal-Mart and other companies, with their control of the supply chains, should be able to drive those efficiencies. Totten takes a broad view of global environmental and economic issues. His viewpoint, partly informed by his work last year working with the Google.org climate and energy team, can be described as a paraphrase of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. “We tend to focus not just on one single thing,” he said. “We tend to compartmentalize: Let’s find a climate solution here, and a biodiversity solution there.” What should be done, he goes on to explain, is to look at problems more systematically.

The world’s forests should be considered in this connect-the-dispersed-dots thinking, Totten says. Existing forests are being cut down in areas where they should not, particularly in Brazil and Indonesia, reducing the planet’s ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. Carbon-offset money from developed countries should be allowed to ensure the remaining existence of those forests, he says. Rules that came out of the Kyoto Protocol did not provide that flexibility because developing countries were not among the nations that signed it.
“Allowing the poor countries to participate in these carbon-trading markets would generate tens of billions of dollars of revenue for them each year,” Totten says.

Probir Ghosh, an organizer of this year’s conference, sees Colorado as being in an ideal position for helping to generate the long-ranging vision for energy that has so far eluded the United States. “We can really be a global leader if we set some stretch goals with well-coordinated policies, and with industry and community involvement,” he says.  “We have no time to lose.” 

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Allen Best

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