The landmark Paris Agreement on climate change means it’s even more essential to spur the development of low-carbon technology, including technology to capture and store climate-warming carbon to keep it out of the atmosphere. International cooperation is an important way to help make this happen. One strong step in this direction is Mission Innovation, which brings 20 countries together to double spending on clean energy R&D over the next five years.

As the two biggest greenhouse-gas-emitting nations, the United States and China are already working together through the Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), which they established in 2009. With participation from universities and the public and private sectors, CERC promotes U.S.-China research on building efficiency, clean energy vehicles, advanced coal technology, the water-energy nexus, and efficiency in heavy- and medium-duty trucks.

As CERC begins its second five-year phase this year, it’s useful to see how the first phase went. A new WRI working paper summarizes results of a survey of project leaders and core researchers to examine the experience of the Advanced Coal Technology Consortium, one of five consortia that make up CERC, and offers recommendations for the next five years.  

New Procedures, Improved Products

The coal technology consortium aims to advance technology for carbon capture, utilization, and storage, and other advanced coal utilization. Within Phase I of CERC, researchers from the two countries produced joint articles and conference papers, new or improved research procedures, patents, and new or improved market products. Some specific accomplishments include:

  • Joint research on post-combustion carbon capture processes at Huaneng’s Shidongkou plant in Shanghai and at Duke Energy’s Gibson Generating Station in Indiana;
  • Knowledge sharing on Huazhong University of Science and Technology and B&W’s oxy-fuel combustion test platform;
  • Collaboration among Shenhua Group, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, West Virginia University, and the University of Wyoming to identify suitable carbon dioxide storage sites in the Ordos Basin in China and Rock Springs Uplift in Wyoming;
  • A carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery project in China between Yanchang Petroleum and the University of Wyoming;
  • Data sharing on carbon dioxide utilization with microalgae among the University of Kentucky, Duke Energy, and China’s ENN Energy Group.

These joint achievements have driven technology learning on CCS in the United States and China, which is urgently needed at this point to accelerate CCS development. For example, joint research on post-combustion capture processes by Huaneng, Duke, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggested a capture cost of $61-68 per metric ton of carbon dioxide if Huaneng’s capture system is installed at Duke’s Gibson plant in Indiana. This type of information adds certainty to carbon capture costs, creating more stability for policymakers and businesses.

Sharing of information in this kind of partnership is key, and the coal technology consortium’s success was mixed in this area: it was stronger on published articles, methodologies, and standards, but inconsistent for more sensitive market and engineering information. Importantly, nearly 90 percent of project leaders reported that the coal technology consortium strengthened R&D capacity and helped in establishing research partners and finding research funding.

CERC also plays a notable role in the larger U.S.-China relationship, particularly on climate change. With tension rising on cybersecurity, the South China Sea, and other issues, cooperation on climate action is a place where the two countries can anchor their relationship. As a headline initiative within U.S.-China climate cooperation, CERC’s diplomatic significance is as valuable as its support to research and development.

Lessons Learned

WRI’s examination of CERC’s coal consortium provides some valuable lessons for its own trajectory as well as for other countries looking to set up similar joint energy R&D initiatives. Our survey of project leaders and researchers identified a few ways to foster more effective collaboration:

1. Early Private Sector Involvement: There was some mismatch in research interests among participating institutions at the outset, which reduced opportunities for strong partnerships and created hesitancy among some about sharing information. Including the private sector in initial research set-up discussions and better outlining the benefits of participation in outreach events could foster cooperation from the start.

2. More Frequent Contact: Maintaining consistent and effective communication proved challenging with differences in location, time zone, and culture. Improved communication at the consortium and project levels through more frequent virtual and in-person exchanges and assignment of points of contact at the project level would help. 

3. Focus on Demonstration Projects: A lack of sufficient private sector partners resulted in a focus on lab-stage R&D. We recommend working toward a stronger focus on demonstration projects; additionally we suggest a more flexible and open platform for the coal technology consortium to attract more private sector resources. Private sector participation is an essential component to achieving large-scale commercial deployment of CCS technologies.

One key to continued success will be a clearer definition of each participant’s role within the consortium among government entities, public research institutes, and private companies. Building a stronger partnership will be critical not only to advance technologies that mitigate the impact of climate change, but to demonstrate leadership in multilateral cooperation.   

To learn more, download the full working paper, U.S.-China Clean Energy Collaboration: Lessons from the Advanced Coal Technology Consortium.