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Clean Coal Debacle

January 24, 2012

The coal industry has created a problem for itself by saying that “clean coal” refers to Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plants where CO2 is captured and stored underground.

IGCC plants are exorbitantly expensive to build, costing twice as much as an ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant, and nearly as much as a nuclear power plant.

They also require that the captured CO2 be stored underground for centuries, something that is impossible to prove.

It’s very likely that most new power plants, at least for the immediate future, will be natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants, but at some point, the availability of coal and the suitability of coal-fired power plants for providing base load power, will mean that coal-fired power plants could once again be competitive with NGCC plants.

But IGCC plants won’t be able to compete, unless government regulations force their adoption.

The coal industry would have been wiser to establish that ultra-supercritical plants deserved the label “clean coal”, and to never have assigned the label to IGCC plants.

Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants operate at very high temperatures and pressures and have thermal efficiencies of between 38% and over 43% HHV. They use 25% to 35% less coal, respectively.

In addition, properly equipped ultra-supercritical units have lower emissions. Emissions of SOx are cut by over 95%, NOx by over 85%, particulates by over 98%, while 90% of Hg is removed with appropriate emission control equipment.

Ultra-supercritical units are superior to the existing fleet of traditional coal-fired power plants that have a thermal efficiency of only 32% HHV.

For those who worry about CO2 emissions, CO2 emissions from ultra-supercritical coal-fired plants are nearly the same as from NGCC plants.

Ultra-supercritical plants are being built in China, and even in Europe, but except for one unit being built in the United States, they aren’t being built here. And AEP has had to agree to onerous conditions to merely complete the plant it’s building in Arkansas.

The coal industry seems to be running scared ahead of environmentalists, and still assigns the label “clean coal” to IGCC units, where CO2 is captured and stored underground – “forever”?

With utilities announcing retirements of coal-fired power plants and the abandonment of projects to build new coal-fired power plants, the Sierra Club is claiming victory in its war against coal. Interestingly, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City has given $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, so the coal industry is getting nowhere by touting expensive IGCC units as being clean.

Dirty Business, a new film by an environmental group, claims there is no such thing as “clean coal”. It will be shown at the Get Reel festival and highlights coal as being the number one sources of CO2 emissions. The film is narrated by Rolling Stones contributing Editor Jeff Goodell.

It’s clear; the coal industry is making no headway against environmentalists and the EPA.

The coal industry has locked itself into an untenable position where IGCC plants are uneconomic, while ignoring ultra-supercritical plants that are economic and can meet all environmental regulations, except for potential CO2 regulations – which NGCC plants can’t meet either.

(For information on NGCC carbon capture, see Interesting News from California.)

(Link for information on Carbon Capture and Sequestration.)

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