Coal and HELE coal plants – the perspective from Japan

During the week beginning 9 September 2018 I visited Tokyo, Japan. The reason for my visit was twofold and part of my researches into the background for my present IEA CCC study on ‘HELE prospects for Japan and South Korea.

On 10 and 11 September I was a participant at the Clean Coal Day in Japan 2018 International Symposium, ‘Role of coal energy towards low carbon society’ which was organised by the Japan Coal Energy Centre (JCOAL). Two keynote addresses set the scene for the symposium: ‘Powering sustainable development with low emissions coal’ by Mick Buffier, Vice Chairman, World Coal Association, and ‘Evolution of coal – from a viewpoint of evolutionary biology’ by Yoshihiko Sakanashi, Senior Counsellor, J-POWER. The remainder of the event was organised into four sessions followed by a wrap-up panel discussion. The symposium was conducted in Japanese, with simultaneous translation into English and Chinese.

Individual presentations are available for download on JCoal’s website.

Session 1 INVESTMENT STATUS FOR COAL RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT examined the way in which the funding for coal mining and utilisation technologies is changing in the light of policy directives on renewables and a continuing demand for affordable coal. Private investment continues to be a major source of funding for new developments. Recent years have seen many changes in the coal supply market, a phenomenon well-illustrated by the Australian mining industry which has witnessed growth, consolidation and ’changing faces’ as large players merge (Glencore and Yancoal) or divest their coal assets (Rio Tinto).

Session 2 COAL UTILISATION R&D TOWARDS LOW CARBON SOCIETY, addressed the coal sector’s approach to meeting ’low carbon targets‘. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) issues were covered with Brad Page, CEO, Global CCS Institute giving an overview of worldwide progress on the development and implementation of CCS solutions. Biomass cofiring was also covered in this session with recent Japanese initiatives on the benefits of ‘torrefaction’ described. The majority of the presentations however, described work on developments in the hydrogen-from-coal area and how these could enable ’decarbonised coal‘ to participate in meeting future energy needs.

Session 3 WORLD’S ENERGY POLICY UPDATED TOWARDS LOW CARBON SOCIETY,  concentrated on how coal features in the energy policies of the world. The presentations of the two large coal users China and America drew a lot of attention with the changing attitude to coal by the Trump administration summarised by Lou Hrkman, (sic) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Clean Coal & Carbon Management, Office of Fossil Energy, US Department of Energy (DOE), while China’s initiatives in the clean coal area and the country’s predicted levelling off in coal use was discussed by Xue-Nong Huang Director-General, Electricity Department, National Energy Administration (NEA). Poland and Turkey both have significant reserves of coal and its use is a major contributor to meeting each country’s energy needs. Waldemar Lagoda Deputy Director, Department of Electrical and District Heating, Ministry of Energy (MOE) and Dr Ozturk Selvitop Deputy Director General, Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources Republic of Turkey presented their respective country’s situation and policy towards coal use, often in the face of strong opposition. Concluding the session, Prof Dr Jun Arima, Senior Policy Fellow for Energy and Environment, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) (Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo) gave a presentation of the ’Role of Coal in the EAS Region’. He argued the case for coal as a continuing source of affordable energy, vital for giving the region’s populations access to electricity with the life-improving benefits that follow. In considering the ongoing “coal bashing” in many individual and international energy policies he drew attention to the substantial gap between climate advocacy and energy reality and how the rollout of HELE technologies were vital in allowing coal to meet future energy demand in the most environmentally acceptable way.

Session 4 ROLE OF COAL IN THE RENEWABLES IMPLEMENTATION, covered the co-existence of coal and an increasing share of renewables in meeting electricity demand. Initiatives to improve coal plant flexibility that allow them to smooth out the supply of power against the background of irregular renewables generation were described. Grid instability remains an issue and one that increases as more renewables capacity is added to a country’s grid.  A particular and growing instability issue arises when renewables electricity is ’fed-in‘ by large numbers of small generators, such as householders, to the grid as there is no way to comprehensively predict when these supplies come on-, and off-stream.

The wrap-up discussion reiterated many of the points made in the individual sessions and restated coal’s continuing importance for energy supply. The ’Energy Trilema‘ was invoked to illustrate the issues facing policy makers when attempting to reconcile the energy needs of their populations with commitments to the environment and the ’realpolitik‘ of energy security.

The event was organised to facilitate contact between the delegates and I was able to speak to many of the experts and policy makers present. The overall flavour of the event could be best be described by the word ’pragmatic‘ with a repeated call for governments and international institutions to recognise that future energy supplies are not simply going to met solely from renewable sources and that coal is set to remain an important energy source for the foreseeable future, especially in the fast growing and urbanising economies of Asia.

On 12 and 13 September I attended a series of meetings kindly arranged by Takeshi Murakami of NEDO and his colleagues for more detailed discussions on HELE matters. At the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), I was able to gain an insight into Japan’s energy policy for meeting demand over the next thirty years. Over thirty new coal plants are envisaged to replace older retired units and meet increased demand. METI are currently working on a position paper on HELE technologies to be tabled at the upcoming 2019 G20 meeting to be held in Osaka.

Discussions with representatives from JCoal, IHI, MHPS and Toshiba gave me much valuable insight into the status of HELE technologies in Japan, and how these are being implemented nationally and internationally with respect to funding, local regulations, capacity building in plant operation and maintenance. I would like to express my gratitude to those experts for these discussions and their time freely given.

The visit concluded with a visit to the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI) where presentations were given on the Institute’s research into coal gasification and high temperature and pressure testing of novel alloys for use in Advanced USC applications. Again, I would like to record my thanks for the opportunity to gain an insight into CRIEPI’s valuable work.

Whenever I attend a coal conference there is always a flavour of “something old, something new” and this was no exception. It was fascinating to see how a topic like hydrogen-from-coal which was a “hot topic” when I started work forty years ago is back on the agenda. Although coal gasification has been around for longer than that, the incremental improvements to the technology and the increase in plant size mean that it is still very much a “player” in coal’s future. Two things that particularly caught my attention were the “ready for rollout” status of A-USC technology, probably as a partial upgrade to an existing plant initially and the knock-on effect of the USA’s “fracking revolution” that will see Powder River Basin coal traded to China.

Japan was fascinating and its people courteous and extremely helpful. In an increasingly homogenised world it is also sufficiently different to many other countries to present an interest to the senses and a challenge to the mind, especially when navigating transportation systems!