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Lipstick on a Pig

March 21, 2014

Radical environmentalists, and even the coal industry, have been promoting the building of Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plants.

The coal industry has supported IGCC power plants because they can capture CO2 for sequestration underground, while allowing the use of coal.

Three such plants have been built in the United Sates, but mostly without the ability to capture CO2.

The cost of these plants is nearly the same as a new nuclear power plant, or around $5,500 per KW. This compares with $1,100 for a natural gas power plant.

Tampa Electric (TECO), for example, cancelled plans to build a second IGCC power plant because of its cost.

In addition, Carbon Capture and Sequestration, is rapidly becoming a lost cause for radical environmentalists. This is because of the cost of capturing CO2, and of doubts about whether CO2 can be locked, i.e., sequestered, underground, without leaking into the atmosphere, for centuries to come.

The high cost of IGCC plants, and the possibility that sequestration is a pipe dream, has led to a new proposal: “Polygeneration” power plants.

Power Magazine did a spread on “Polygeneration” power plants, extolling their potential virtues, but also outlining some of the problems of such a plant.

What are “Polygeneration” power plants?

They are IGCC power plants that also produce a product, such as chemicals by using the CO2 captured from the gasification process.

These plants would be more akin to an oil refinery than a power plant.

They would also cost a great deal more than the basic IGCC power plant.

As in a basic IGCC plant, the coal is gasified, becoming what’s termed syngas, where some of the gas, that is mostly hydrogen, is used to power a gas turbine, and where the CO2 is diverted to an adjacent chemical plant for producing fertilizers, methanol or other liquid and chemical products. The CO2 could also be used for enhanced oil recovery.

Schematic of Polygenration plant from DOE

Schematic of Polygenration plant from DOE


Theoretically, the products produced by the chemical plant from the CO2 feedstock, combined with the sale of electricity, would be sufficiently profitable to result in a satisfactory rate-of-return for the “Polygeneration” plant.

This type of plant hasn’t yet been built, but it’s being promoted as an alternative to traditional coal-fired power plants.

The EPA has essentially killed traditional, or even the most efficient ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants, by establishing a rule that power plants can’t emit more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per MW Hour.

With carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) becoming less and less likely, the radical environmentalists needed a new alternative for coal that would mask the devastating effect of the EPA’s war on coal.

The “Polygeneration” alternative holds out the promise that coal can still be part of the energy equation, which is politically pleasing … even though completely unrealistic.

It’s a basic engineering rule, as well as common sense, that complexity leads to less reliability and higher cost. An IGCC power plant is far more complex than a coal-fired power plant, and this proposal to attach a chemical plant to the IGCC power plant,  adds even greater complexity.

“Polygeneration” puts lipstick on the IGCC pig.

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