Turning Deadly Methane Gas into Clean Energy

An ADB-supported project in the People's Republic of China is helping to convert deadly methane gas from coal mines into clean energy for thousands of people and hundreds of businesses.

Li Fumang used to gasp for air to get his job done each day at the 148-room Yangguang Hotel in Shanxi Province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

“Before we started using methane gas, I worked eight hours a day unloading coal from the truck and feeding it to the boiler,” says the 53-year-old. “It was really hard work. The place was full of coal dust. It was difficult to breathe.”

Today, Fumang can breathe easily. The hotel uses two fully automated steam boilers fueled by methane gas. They heat and cool the rooms, and provide hot water throughout the hotel, with no need for coal.

Improving safety, reducing emissions

The methane gas that feeds the boilers is being supplied through the Coal Mine Methane Development Project, a partnership between the Government of the PRC, the people and companies of Shanxi Province, and ADB. The project captures deadly methane gas from a coal mine and uses it to provide clean energy for households and companies.

“The project illustrates how coal mines can be made safer for workers while at the same time producing clean energy,” says Ashok Bhargava, a director in ADB. “It demonstrates several ways to achieve environmentally sustainable growth, one of ADB’s key strategic goals.”

As emerging economies like the PRC grow, they need a huge supply of energy. Much of the PRC’s energy supply comes from burning coal, which releases carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.

Coal mining is often accompanied by the release of methane gas, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Coal mines in the PRC release about 15 billion to 20 billion cubic meters of methane into the atmosphere each year. These emissions are expected to grow as coal mines go deeper underground.

The methane in coal mines needs to be drained during the mining process because it may explode when mixed with air. Methane is the primary cause of underground explosions that kill coal miners in the PRC each year.

Using the latest methane capture technology

To help address these problems, the PRC and ADB worked together on the Coal Mine Methane Development Project. The project used the latest technology to capture methane from a coal mine in Shanxi, one of the largest coal-producing provinces in the country.

The project’s strategy was not only to improve coal mine safety by demonstrating methane capture technologies on a large scale, but also to convert the captured methane to a clean form of energy for use in nearby communities. This project is set to become a model for thousands of coal mines around the country.

The project constructed a system for capturing more than 265 million cubic meters of methane from mines in Jincheng prefecture every year. It used a more efficient technology for coal mine methane capture that had not been used before in the PRC. The captured methane was used to run a 120-megawatt power plant - the world’s largest methane power plant.

Bringing low-cost, clean energy to communities

The project also constructed energy transmission and distribution facilities that helped to bring clean, reliable gas to about 100,000 households and nearly 500 businesses and cut coal consumption. This has resulted in more than 3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent not being released into the atmosphere each year.

The supply of clean energy improved the health of residents and drastically cut their monthly energy costs. Before the project, families were spending about CNY2,000 ($294) per month on coal. After the gas connection, their energy bills were cut to about CNY350 ($52).

Poor households were connected to the gas pipes for free. They also paid a lower monthly rate for the gas.

Reliable gas supply for commercial and industrial establishments increased energy efficiency and improved businesses in the area. It encouraged and enabled the government to require the use of gas in taxis and other forms of public transport, which resulted in cleaner air.

In Shanxi Province alone, more than 3.2 billion cubic meters of methane was captured from coal mines for clean energy use in 2012.

This article is an excerpt from a longer piece originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.