At the IEA Clean Coal Centre, we check regularly on performance data for coal-fired power plants worldwide. So we were very surprised when we found the Guardian newspaper declared that ‘China’s largest coal power plant violating air pollution levels every week’ (18 December 2014). We were even more surprised when we discovered the article was claiming that it was the Waigaoqiao plant in Shanghai, which was failing to meet the new NOx emissions standards and relating this to the formation of dangerous fine particulate matter pollution. The journalist then linked this poor performance to the fact that the the Waigaoqiao plant ‘is often praised as the cleanest coal-powered plant in China’, which implied there were some questions that needed an answer.
In fact, Waigaoqiao power plant comprises three phases all owned and operated by different companies. Phase 3 is currently China’s flagship coal-fired power plant. Its original cycle efficiency has been raised from a very respectable 41.6% to 44.4% (net,LHV basis), which is now equivalent to a design efficiency of about 46% and it is the showcase for other plants in the country. This is all down to the vision of the Chief Engineer, Mr Feng Weizhong who has personally made it his mission to make innovative improvements year on year for his power plant. Then we come to the emissions from Waigaiqiao No.3 plant, all of which are well below the national emissions performance standards. For example, NOX is typically16mg/m3, well below the standard of 100mg/m3. By the way, this level is lower than you would achieve on a gas-fired power plant in China!
However, don’t take my word for it, or that of the plant operations team, which post real-time performance emissions data on public screens at the site; the emissions have been verified by independent experts from Siemens and Alstom who supplied some of the key components for the plant.
Of course, it is unfortunate that Waigaoqiao No. 2 plant, which is not linked in any way with the No.3 plant, has problems complying with the new NOx standards. The standards are some of the tightest in the world and the nation as a whole has only had since the start of 2012 to install and prove the required emissions control equipment. It is also wrong that the local regulator is not yet using the national standards on nitrogen oxides.
The wider situation is that China’s economy is so dominated by coal that it cannot cease use of this fossil fuel overnight. Rather, China is making great strides to improve transparency in power plant performance data. China is a world leader in the introduction of lower and zero carbon technologies while having close to 90% of the most efficient coal power plants in the world. It is also at the forefront of developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and utilisation (CCUS). When these technologies are applied to a modern high efficiency low emissions coal-fired power plant really will be offering a near zero emissions from coal option.