Visitors view a machine from an exhibitor at the Coal Expo in Yulin, China, last September 8. Photo: PR Newswire

Many Western environmentalists want coal-fired power plants shut down now. But a poor advertisement for Western hectoring is the gross mismanagement of power grids and resultant disasters in Texas and California.

One US state’s policy is modeled on “the free market,” the other on “alternative and sustainable.” Alas, both are characterized by irresponsible neglect of maintenance.

Asian governments and industries are likely to continue with their practical approach to power management and environmental protection. No drastic cancellation of coal is likely, but net-zero carbon emissions are now a widely accepted target.

Consider a new project that has caught the attention of the Japanese media: the construction of a facility to produce methane by combining hydrogen, made by electrolysis of water, with carbon dioxide that’s generated by industrial activity.

The site is the Yulin Economic and Technological Development Zone in Shaanxi Province, southwest of Beijing. The zone consists of four industrial parks that specialize in coal-fired power, coal-based chemicals, salt chemicals, building materials and photovoltaics. Most recently, it has become a center for the demonstration of advanced materials and new energy technologies.

Japanese engineering company Hitachi Zosen will build the plant, which is expected to provide about 30% of the industrial zone’s energy when it is completed in 2022. Hitachi Zosen, Japanese oil company Inpex and NEDO previously built a test facility to verify the methane synthesis technology in Japan’s Niigata Prefecture.

The project will be carried out under the auspices of China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), with support from Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) – and, interestingly, the Japan Coal Energy Center.

The Japan Coal Energy Center (JCOAL) is an industry association with about 150 members including mining, electric power, steel, chemical, engineering, trading, transport and green energy development-related companies and organizations.

According to its website,JCOAL is engaging in the activities covering the entire coal value chain, toward stable energy supply, sustainable economic growth and global mitigation of environmental degradation such as CO2 emissions.”

In line with the times, its members are now adopting the Net Zero Carbon Society as a corporate slogan and long-term goal. But is this just propaganda?

A review of JCOAL’s membership list shows that only a few have significant exposure to coal and that many are focused on other sources of energy and are working on technologies aimed at reducing CO2 emissions. The JCOAL name is out of date.

NEDO, for its part, is now in the middle of a four-year project entitled “Next-Generation Power Network Stabilization Technology Development for Large-Scale Integration of Renewable Energies.” This project aims to optimize the use and minimize the cost of renewable energy within Japan’s existing power grids.

Other NEDO projects cover hydrogen, wind, biomass, geothermal and ocean energy, storage batteries, as well as more efficient coal-processing and steel manufacturing technology including coal gasification and hydrogen-from-coal.

Last October, Japanese Prime Minister Suga told the national Diet:

We hereby declare that by 2050 Japan will aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, that is, to realize a carbon-neutral, decarbonized society. Addressing climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth … We need to adjust our mindset to a paradigm shift that proactive climate change measures bring transformation of industrial structures as well as our economy and society, leading to dynamic economic growth.

At about the same time, Japan’s Energy for a New Era – a thermal power and fuel joint venture between Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings and Chubu Electric Power that generates about one-third of Japan’s energy production – chimed in. JERA announced plans to shut down all “inefficient” coal-fired power plants by 2030, adopt co-firing with ammonia and hydrogen, promote wind power and storage batteries and meet the government’s net-zero target by 2050.

Nippon Steel has adopted the same target, which it plans to reach by using hydrogen to fuel its blast furnaces, waste heat recycling and carbon capture. It is also cooperating with two other larger Japanese steelmakers, JFE Steel and Kobe Steel.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is already taking orders for hybrid hydrogen-LNG power plants. It is also building a hydrogen-fueled pilot plant for the Austrian steelmaker and metals engineering company Voestalpine. 

These and many other examples demonstrate that Japan’s public-private industrial policy is alive and well – and gearing up for the next 30 years. President Biden, take note.

Last November, JCOAL and the ASEAN Centre for Energy published a policy brief entitled “New Role of Coal Fired Power Plant in the Era of Energy Transition,” which included this note:

The Policy Brief confirms ASEAN’s long-term policy fundamentals that define coal remaining as an important fuel while promoting the introduction of renewable energy. The region still needs coal, [which is] affordable and reliable, as one of the power sources to support growth. [ASEAN member countries] are clear on their policy to continue coal utilization especially for power generation in the cleanest possible manner.

This also fits with forward-looking industrial policy – specifically in Indonesia, where the government is promoting a shift from coal extraction and export to coal-gasification. Indonesia ranks second to Australia in total coal exports and first in thermal coal.

The 14th Japan-China Energy Conservation and Environment Comprehensive Forum was held in December 2020. Fourteen new projects were launched, bringing the total since the Forum was established in 2006 to 402.

The forum’s theme was “energy cooperation for a carbon-free society.” At the plenary session, Hiroshi Kajiyama, Japan’s minister of economy, trade and industry, said that “Japan and China will collaborate in fields such as hydrogen and carbon recycling toward the realization of carbon neutrality.”

Four subcommittees addressed the subjects of energy efficiency, vehicle electrification, hydrogen and other “clean” power, and water and sludge treatment. Both government bodies and the private sector were represented.

According to statistics assembled by Worldometer, Japan ranks 6th in the world in annual coal consumption after China, India, the US, Germany and Russia. South Korea ranks 8th, Australia 10th, Indonesia 12th, Taiwan 14th and Vietnam 16th.

Behind the ranking is a huge gap in dependence on coal. With a GDP only three times larger, China consumes more than 20 times as much coal as Japan.

Smoke is discharged from chimneys at a coal-fired power plant in Changchun city, northeast China’s Jilin province. Photo: AFP

Cooperating with China to reduce carbon emissions is both an environmental necessity and a business opportunity. Rather than decoupling from China, Japan is developing new environmentally friendly technologies together with China.

The Biden administration says it wants to work with China on climate change while opposing China on pretty much every other issue. But the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported this exchange on its website:

CCTV: US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said …, “Obviously we have serious differences with China … We all know none of those issues will be traded for anything that has to do with climate.”

MFA Spokesperson Zhao Lijian: … “China-US cooperation in specific areas, unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill, is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole.”

Asia will go its own way.

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.