The world’s advanced economies have decided to phase out coal over the next seven years. But not Japan, which stands alone in insisting that coal can do less harm to the planet.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the nation’s largest coal-fired power plant in Hekinan, a small town in central Japan where 400,000 tons of pitch black piles are spread across an area the size of 40 football fields.

Starting next spring, Jera, the company that owns the site, wants to demonstrate that it can mix ammonia – which does not emit carbon dioxide when burned – with coal in its boilers. The use of this new technology is fueling a debate about whether it is better to find cleaner ways to use coal, or to phase it out as soon as possible in favor of renewable energy.

The company says the ammonia method can reduce dangerous emissions in the fight against global warming. In an effort initially conceived – and heavily subsidized – by the government of Japan, it is one of several power companies planning to use ammonia in a process marketed as “clean coal.”

With ammonia, the companies can “use the plants we have rather than build brand new ones,” said Katsuya Tanigawa, the general manager at Jera’s Hekinan site.

Japan derives nearly a third of its electrical power supply from coal, one of the world’s dirtiest sources of energy. But critics say the use of ammonia only extends Japan’s dependence on fossil fuels and could potentially increase carbon emissions while the ammonia is produced. Burning ammonia can also produce nitrogen oxide, which is toxic to humans and is another emission to be managed.

“We need to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants now, not explore technology that may or may not be feasible,” said Katrine Petersen, senior policy adviser at E3G, a think tank.

Anxiety in Japan about energy has grown exponentially since an earthquake and tsunami caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in 2011. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Japan shut down all of its nuclear plants, shutting down 30 percent of the nation’s power supply overnight. To compensate, the country’s power companies rushed to build new coal plants even as the world moved away from fossil fuels.

Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has recently stepped up efforts to restart the country’s nuclear power grid, but communities that host the plants have resisted.

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has few of its own natural resources, and can produce only 11 percent of its energy needs without fuel imports – one of the lowest self-sufficiency rates among the world’s richest nations.

At a meeting of environment ministers of the Group of 7 leaders in Sapporo this spring, Japan was the only nation that refused to commit to lowering its carbon use by 2030.

The government and the country’s power industry point to many obstacles to building renewable energy sources quickly, including Japan’s geographic isolation, mountainous terrain, deep sea waters and an annual typhoon season.

Along with China, which President Xi Jinping recently said would follow its own “tempo and intensity” in cutting carbon emissions, Japanese officials say their nation also has its own timetable and methods.

“We want to climb the same mountain to the same peak,” said Atsushi Kodaka, the director of the energy strategy office in the Commerce Ministry. “But our climbing route doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else’s.”

The power industry is also reluctant to abandon coal because it has spent so much recently to build new plants. Since 2011, Japanese power companies have built 40 coal-fired power plants – almost a quarter of Japan’s entire coal-fired network – with a new Jera plant coming online last month.

Along with industry, the Japanese government has committed about 152 trillion yen (about $1.1 trillion) over 10 years to help the country achieve net zero carbon emissions. By 2030, the Ministry of Commerce says, it will reduce carbon-based generation to 19 percent of the electricity supply, with the ammonia technology comprising about 1 percent, and it is likely to increase.

Jera knows it has to convince a potentially skeptical public of its plans, which is why it runs ads in movie theaters and hands out discount coupons promoting its efforts to develop “zero-emission thermal power.”

Japan also hopes to eventually export the technology to its neighbors in Asia, where it has helped build new coal plants in recent years.

“We are trying to reduce the dependence on coal itself in such countries,” said Masashi Watanabe, a natural resources and energy planner at the Commerce Ministry. “Ammonia co-firing could be one solution.

In Hekinan, welders recently secured the top of a 700-ton storage bin at the sprawling Jera plant. Multiple large orange pipes lay scattered on the ground, waiting to be fitted into a pipeline that will transport ammonia to the plant’s boilers.

During a recent test, the company mixed a mixture of 0.02 percent ammonia with fist-sized pieces of coal in a boiler heated to 1,500 degrees Celsius, more than 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Meeting its next goal will be a bigger challenge.

By March, the company wants to start testing mixtures consisting of as much as 20 percent ammonia, becoming the first in the world to do so.

Even if the technology works, providing a steady, affordable and clean supply of ammonia could significantly strain the world’s supply of the compound, which is needed to produce fertilizer.

The own government Green Growth Strategy admits that if all Japanese coal-fired plants used 20 percent ammonia, “they would need about 20 million tons of ammonia per year” — equivalent to the entire volume of ammonia currently traded on the world market.

Such supply constraints have made the ammonia plan “almost impossible” to implement, said Hajime Takizawa, a climate and energy researcher at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, a government-funded, independent research group. The government, however, says that once it proves the technology works, suppliers will meet demand.

But producing ammonia itself requires electricity, which according to current methods is typically generated from fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. In one common process, water is heated to extremely high temperatures—up to 2,000 degrees Celsius, or 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit—so that hydrogen atoms can be split apart and combined with nitrogen. (Look in your high school science textbooks for the chemical formula of ammonia!)

Heating that water requires a lot of power, and the ammonia supplies that will initially flow to Japan will probably be made with so-called gray or brown electricity. So while burning ammonia in a power plant reduces carbon emissions in one place, making ammonia can generate more carbon emissions in another.

As a result, the ammonia method has “very little mitigation potential,” said Masayoshi Iyoda, the leader of the Japanese team for 350.org, a climate activist group.

Suppliers say they will eventually use renewable energy to make ammonia or capture the carbon emitted during the production process and bury it in the ground. Analysts say that given the costs of such methods, mixing ammonia and coal will be more expensive than simply using renewable energy such as wind power directly.

Ultimately, critics say, Japan is prioritizing the ammonia technology to protect entrenched industrial interests against new renewable energy providers. “They are fully aware that they are losers in this change,” said Kimiko Hirata, founder of Climate Integrate, a research and advocacy group. “So they’re really big on protecting the status quo and vested interests as long as possible.”

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