The U.S. Senate is taking up a long awaited national energy bill. Like a House version passed last year, the Senate is expected to support continued research and development into what’s called “clean coal technology.” Two Northeast Minnesota power plant proposals are based on the new technology, but some environmental groups say there’s no such thing as clean coal; especially at the edge of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher has more:
U.S. Senate is taking up a long awaited national energy bill. Like a House version passed last year, the Senate is expected to support continued research and development into what’s called “clean coal technology.” Two Northeast Minnesota power plant proposals are based on the new technology. But some environmental groups say there’s no such thing as clean coal – especially at the edge of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher reports from Duluth:
When you flip on the lights in the Great Lakes region, chances are the source of your electricity is coal. Eighty three percent of Michigan’s electrical power is from coal, eighty six percent in Ohio, and ninety four percent in Indiana. But coal plant emissions are blamed for much of the environmental degradation around the lakes. Airborne mercury, sulfur and nitrogen compounds are blamed for acidic lakes; stunted trees, and poisoned fish and wildlife.
However, despite this dismal legacy, power generation using coal is once again becoming a growth industry. That’s because, in part, coal is abundant and inexpensive…
“The United States has approximately five hundred and fifty billion tons of coal reserves, which makes our country the Saudi Arabia of coal.”
Tom Sarkus directs the Coal Power Project Division at the National Research Laboratory in Pittsburgh – part of the government’s clean coal research project.
“And despite its reputation, coal is becoming increasingly clean, in terms of air emissions.”
Coal plays a major role in the Bush Administration’s energy plan. If enacted, the federal government would pump more than 3-billion dollars into so called clean coal technology over ten years. Senate democrats support the technology but at about half that level
One of those technologies is called coal gasification. Coal isn’t burned directly – it’s converted, using steam and high pressure, into a burnable gas. That gas is then used to produce energy. In Minnesota, plans are underway to build what could be the world’s largest coal gasification power plant. A two-thousand megawatt generator would be built on property already scarred by decades of iron mining. The plant’s fate likely rests with a new energy bill.
Meanwhile, just seventy miles away, another technology is being used to produce steam for a paper plant and electricity for the public. Coal and wastewood is suspended in a jet of air for a more complete burn. Rapids Energy expects nearly complete control of both nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides – major components of acid rain.
To some observers the return to coal is odd – it’s been the target of environmentalists for years.
Mike Murray is an Environmental Scientist with the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He worries about mercury found in at least trace amounts in most coal. It’s extremely toxic and hard to get rid of.
“Mercury contamination is a major cause of fish advisories around the country now, with forty one states having some type of mercury fish advisory in place. In fact, it’s the major cause of fish advisory by far.”
There’s promising technology to help control mercury emissions. Filter systems called scrubbers might pull mercury from a plant’s exhaust plume. And, in a gasification plant, mercury might be trapped in carbon injected into the gas stream. But so far, neither technology is proven one hundred percent effective.
Jane Reyer is a member of the Lake Superior Bi-National Forum. The Forum works to honor an agreement between the United States and Canada to end all emissions of nine toxic chemicals – including mercury, from the Lake Superior basin. A renewed push to coal-based industry appears to fly in the face of their efforts.
“It seems that that message has not gotten across to decision makers in other areas of the government. For instance, the Department of Energy that is putting a lot emphasis on clean coal technology probably has never heard of the Lake Superior Bi-National Program.”
And there’s another bugaboo with coal. Anna Aurilio, with the Washington based U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says there’s no such thing as clean coal.
“Burning coal releases carbon dioxide, which is the pollutant that is building up in the atmosphere, and which acts like a blanket; trapping the earth’s heat; and which is causing global warming.”
Global warming could cause dramatic changes in weather and rising sea levels. Environmentalists say coal produces one third of the nation’s CO2 emissions.
The higher efficiency of clean coal plants should reduce the amount of CO2 released for a given amount of electricity.
But that’s not good enough, according to Aurilio, who supports non-polluting technology like wind.
“We have the technology in this country, to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; to reduce energy related pollution, and to save consumers money, by increasing energy efficiency, and to shift to truly clean energy sources.”
The tide may be behind coal. But the momentum of that tide will be measured over the next few weeks.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bob Kelleher.