Methane emissions can be virtually eliminated at coal mines – but not without some help, by David Creedy

A Sindicatum ventilation air methane (VAM) abatement project in combination with a coal mine methane capture and utilisation project at Duerping coal mine in Shanxi Province, China, represents the world’s first demonstration of the principle of near zero methane emission mining (nZEM):  Gas capture is maximised in the mine; the drained gas is used for power generation with waste heat recovery; unused gas is flared; the gas that cannot be captured in the mine is diluted to safe concentrations by ventilation air and this VAM is abated using oxidisers placed at the exhaust shafts.

My team and I have now proved that methane emissions can be virtually eliminated at coal mines – and we couldn’t have done it without carbon credits.

I will come back to carbon credits in a moment, but first, in addition to having the potential to abate up to 536,000t CO2 equivalent each year, our Deurping nZEM project has:

  • Provided strong social benefits by significantly improving health and safety for mine workers (that’s what happens when you capture methane)
  • Introduced processes to China for improving gas capture in mines, optimising utilisation and minimising emissions which reduce the impact of coal mining operations on the atmosphere
  • Created local employment to assist site preparation and landscaping works, operations and services, injecting cash into local communities
  • Transferred technologies to Chinese engineering companies which have been involved with designing, constructing and commissioning locally sourced equipment. Through technology transfer and on-the-job experience these companies have extended their skill base, product ranges and capabilities
  • Provided economic benefits by providing a new source of clean electricity (70,000MWh annually), displacing coal-fired power. The waste heat from the generators is used to heat the mine intake ventilation air in winter and to provide heat for hot water, thereby improving working conditions both on the surface and underground.

Because no official Chinese standards exist on small-scale power plant safety, Sindicatum provided safety and operational guidelines for the plants. It has also participated in the preparation of a UN-published best practice guidance document on mine gas capture and use under the auspices of the UNECE in which its China experience was applied.

The facts are clear:

  • Technology is available which can remove virtually all the methane released in underground coal mines (our Deurping project will be the first operational proof that this is the case)
  • In less than two years, China is likely to increase its underground coal production by an amount that exceeds the total underground coal production from the US, the second largest coal mining country in the world.  China will emit increasing volumes of methane from its ever expanding coal mining industry.
  • Global coal production continues to rise annually and emissions from this sector amount to 12 per cent of total anthropogenic methane emissions (estimated from a global hard coal production in 2010 of 6,185million t, 9.1m3/t average specific emission and global anthropogenic methane emissions of 6,875 million t CO2 equivalent from GMI data)
  • Until the Clean Development Mechanism (http://cdm.unfccc.int/) (and therefore carbon incentives) was introduced very few coal mine methane projects existed in China and there were no ventilation air methane abatement projects

Continued carbon financing is essential if significant reductions in methane emissions are to be achieved and this market-mechanism has a proven track record.

  • Without the CDM there is no incentive to flare drained coal mine methane flows that exceed the capacity of utilisation equipment or that cannot be used when the equipment is stood for servicing or repair.
  • The drained methane, while substantially less in volume than VAM, represents an important source of clean energy that will be wasted if it is not exploited. Yet mining companies generally do not have the expertise to design and operate CMM power and co-generation plants. The technology transfer that comes as part of the CDM package has proved an essential element in persuading mines to install equipment for power generation, heat recovery and flaring as uniquely exemplified in Sindicatum’s China three CMM projects at Duerping, Tunlan and Malan coal mines in Shanxi Province, China. Sindicatum has invested over US$50million to develop 27MW of clean power generation and a methane abatement capacity of 10 million tonnes CO2 equivalent. By the end of 2011 over 192,000MWh of clean power had been produced with 1,154,690 t of CO2 equivalent reduced.
  • The abatement of VAM is not practicable without carbon financing in some form. In the absence of carbon pricing that reflects the true abatement cost, the largest proportion of mine emissions will go untreated in all coal mining countries.

Carbon may not be in fashion but the drivers of climate change are not going away.  Without strong international carbon markets, the vast capital needed to achieve significant climate change mitigation will not be forthcoming and the higher costs of adaptation will have to be faced instead.

After the end of this year, certified emission reductions created by new CDM projects will no longer be admissible to the European trading scheme (basically, Europe no longer wants to shoulder the burden of incentivizing China to reduce its emissions).  So, how can momentum be maintained to tackle the mining emissions problem? Domestic carbon markets, at national or regional level in China (similar to the cap and trade carbon market enacted by the State of California) could emerge as an effective soution in the medium term but meanwhile there will still be a gap which needs an international response to address.  International bilateral agreements have been proposed as a way forward but these will tend to distort the market, deter technological competition and lead to inefficiencies.

Doubts have been expressed as to whether China could develop a robust carbon market with sufficient integrity to be credible given its penchant for massaging information and statistics.  However, there is a wealth of experience of the carbon space in China. The appointment of Duan Maosheng as Chairman of the CDM Executive Board is a reflection of the competence and ability of principals in this specialist area.  The Chinese have witnessed first hand the effectiveness of the carbon markets in transferring technology and getting emission reduction projects done.  They should accelerate their current preparations, implement a robust cap and trade system and show the US the way forward in greenhouse gas abatement.

Dr. David Creedy is managing director of the Coal Mine Methane division of Sindicatum.

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