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Could Zaozhuang's hybrid chemical and power plants help clean up China's energy sector?

3 min read

Shandong Province, nestled along the Sea of China between Shanghai and Beijing, has one of China's fastest-growing economies. Thanks to the local high-sulfur coal fueling its growth, it also has some of the country's dirtiest air. But while high-sulfur coal is choking Shandong's residents and stunting crops, it has also inspired a creative application of coal gasification technology that could help clean up China's air and quench its thirst for electricity.

The site of this experiment is a chemical complex operated by China's No. 2 coal producer, the Yankuang Group, in Zaozhuang, an industrial region of 3.0;million residents in southern Shandong. A bountiful flower garden attests to the facility's role since 1960 as a supplier of ammonia fertilizers, but it is the methanol plant--which began large-scale operation last year--that makes the site an energy innovator. The plant's two 27-meter-tall gasifiers are China's largest and most efficient, blending 2000 metric tons of coal per day with steam, oxygen, and extreme heat to form a hydrogen-rich fuel called syngas.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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