By Brian Dumaine, senior editor at large
FORTUNE — In my last article focused on the global energy race, I cited a new World Resources Institute report that found that some 1,199 coal-fired plants are currently on the drawing board worldwide, with the lion’s share being built-in India and China. This coal-buying binge, I argued, could seriously dent any progress made on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Soon after I cited the gloomy conclusion of this report, one bright spot appeared. In December, the Huaneng Group flicked the switch on the country’s first clean coal plant in Tianjin, China, about 90 miles from Beijing. The plant, which uses a technology called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), turns coal into gas before burning and, in the process, reduces pollutants. The Tianjin facility produces only 10% of a conventional coal-fired power station’s pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide. Within the next year or two — thanks to the addition of carbon capture technology — it should achieve zero carbon dioxide emissions.
Other clean coal projects exist around the world including the Southern Company’s IGCC plant under construction in Kemper County Mississippi and Duke Energy’s plant in Edwardsport, Indiana scheduled to open this year. But the world needs China more than anyone else to master clean coal technology if we are to address climate change seriously and at the same time clean up the air quality for Asia’s citizens. After all, China depends on coal for about 80% of its electricity and has vast reserves of the fuel.
The Tianjin plant is small by industry standards — about 250 megawatts or about one-quarter the capacity of a nuclear power plant — but is important symbolically. It is the first evidence that Beijing’s 2005 GreenGen program to build a coal-fired power plant with near-zero emissions by 2015 is on track.
With all good things, there’s a catch. This time it’s price. By one estimate, the combination of ICGG and carbon capture technology could raise the price of burning coal by as much as 60%. The hope is that as the industry gets better at building and managing the technology, the costs will drop. The trouble is, no one knows how soon.