A large, coal-burning utility in the U.S. and another in China have agreed to cooperate to develop methods to more cleanly burn coal, including so-called carbon capture and storage technology. Duke Energy will partner with China's Huaneng Group to further develop and build technologies to gasify coal and strip it of its impurities, including the carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere from coal burning. As it stands, Huaneng releases some 285 million metric tons of CO2 per year while Duke emits 112 million metric tons, according to data from the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C.-based thinktank.

"We find ourselves at a pivotal point in world history," said Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers in a statement announcing the partnership. "China has committed to rapidly developing clean-energy technologies, as has the U.S.… Working together, the U.S. and China can commercialize and drive down the cost of these technologies for the benefit of the entire world."

The key stumbling block for both gasification technology (known as integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is cost. IGCC plants can cost as much as three times a conventional coal plant while adding CCS technology can double the cost of the electricity produced.

Both Duke and Huaneng currently have potential carbon capture and storage projects in the works: Duke may add CCS to the new IGCC power plant being constructed in Edwardsport, Ind., and Huaneng has a demonstration project at a power plant in Beijing as well as being a partner in the so-called "GreenGen" project outside near Tianjin, which will demonstrate both gasification and CCS technology when completed over the next decade.

The announcement follows a visit to China by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other government officials, in part to work on partnering around CCS technology for the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. "To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we must accelerate our efforts to capture and store carbon in a safe and cost-effective way," said Chu, in announcing $2.4 billion in money for U.S. CCS projects in May.

As it stands, the U.S. gets roughly 50 percent of its electricity from coal, while China gets more than 70 percent of its power from coal—billowing into the atmosphere. The countries combine to emit some 5.5 billion metric tons of CO2 per year from electricity generation alone.

Image: New plant under construction at Edwardsport, Ind. could become one of the first in commercial operation to undertake carbon capture and storage. Courtesy of Duke Energy