Tom Micheletti (right), and Excelsior Energy Vice President of Environmental Affairs, Bob Evans (left). They are locating where the proposed power plant will be built near the town of Taconite, Minnesota. (Photo by Bob Kelleher)
Tom Micheletti, Co-President of Excelsior Energy, the company formed to build the Mesaba Energy project: a 600 megawatt Integrated Combined Cycle Coal Gasification plant. (Photo by Bob Kelleher)
Acid rain, mercury pollution, and huge amounts of the heat-trapping gas carbon-dioxide are the down sides of burning coal in electric power plants. And yet, some energy experts are saying America should be using more coal. They say new coal technology can produce electricity with few of the pollution problems of traditional coal power plants. Bob Kelleher reports:
Acid rain, mercury pollution, and huge amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide are the down sides of burning coal in electric power plants. And yet, some energy experts are saying America should be using more coal. They say new coal technology can produce electricity with few of the pollution problems of traditional coal power plants. Bob Kelleher reports:
Coal has a well deserved bad reputation. Typical coal burning power plants release mercury, sulfur, nitrogen oxides, and lots of carbon dioxide. Those releases mean toxins in the air, soot, acid rain, and many believe global warming. But Tom Micheletti says there’s a way to use coal with very little pollution.
Using heat, steam, pressure, and oxygen, coal can be broken down to a relatively clean gas, and a handful of other chemical products. The gas is burned, to turn generators and produce electricity. The technology is called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle. Micheletti says, the technology isn’t new, but applying it this way is.
“All we’re doing is marrying the gasification technology, with a technology that’s been well established, the combined cycle gas technology – power plant technology. And all we’re doing is simply putting those two technologies together.”
Micheletti is Co-President of Excelsior Energy, a company formed to build the nation’s first large scale coal gasification electric power plant in northeast Minnesota. At 600 megawatts, it would dwarf demonstration plants now online in Indiana and Florida.
Some experts say coal gasification is not only promising, it’s more practical than nuclear power, natural gas, solar or wind. Daniel Schrag is a climatologist and head of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.
“We have a lot of coal in the US. We’re very fortunate that way. The problem is that coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit energy than any other fossil fuel. And so, when we burn coal and make electricity, it’s really bad for the climate system.”
Schrag says there’s more carbon dioxide around us now than humans have ever experienced. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Most scientists believe it blankets the earth, forcing temperatures higher.
Schrag says, when used to generate electricity, coal gasification has big advantages over conventional power plants, because it can capture CO2.
“You get more energy for the amount of coal you put in, and that’s good for carbon emissions. The other thing is that it seems to be cheaper in an IGCC plant, or a gasification plant, to capture the carbon dioxide after one extracts the energy from the coal, and then makes it much easier to capture it and inject it into a geological reservoir.”
The key, Schrag says, is a process called sequestration. You capture, and then sequester it, or lock that carbon dioxide away, where it won’t escape into the atmosphere. It’s already being done.
This is the Dakota Gasification Company, just outside Beulah, North Dakota. Here they turn coal into a burnable gas and almost a dozen other products. They also produce plenty of carbon dioxide, but the CO2 is not vented into the air; it’s trapped and compressed. That’s the noise.
The CO2 is piped more than 200 miles into Canada where it’s pumped into oil wells, forcing the last oil out and leaving the CO2 underground. Near oceans it can be pumped under deep ocean sediments, where it stays put.
And that’s all very good, but others say even good power plants might be a bad idea.
Ross Hammond is with the Minnesota based organization Fresh Energy. Hammond says gasification’s proponents are overlooking conservation and the opportunities for clean energy.
“When we’ve exhausted all the clean options including biomass and photovoltaics, and wind and the other options, then we need to look at coal.”
But Harvard’s Daniel Schrag says it’s not as simple as pushing money toward pollution free energy.
“And the answer is complicated. The answer is perhaps not. It may be that coal is so cheap that even the extra cost of capturing the carbon and storing it underground may still make it cheaper than the alternatives, than wind and solar.”
Schrag says we’ll need it all – nuclear, hydro, wind and biomass. But to satisfy the nation’s hunger for energy, he says we’ll need coal – best used in coal gasification.
So far, coal-burning power plants have been a dominant source of electricity for the U.S. They've also been known to be bad for the environment. New technology makes coal a cleaner source of fuel, but some environmentalists have their doubts. (Photo by Lester Graham)
A new kind of cleaner, coal-fired power plant will soon be built somewhere in the Midwest. American Electric Power, the nation’s largest producer of electricity, says the new plant will be more efficient and pollute less than traditional coal plants. But critics say if utilities were doing more to promote energy efficiency, they wouldn’t need to build new power plants that burn fossil fuels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner
A new kind of cleaner, coal-fired power plant will soon be
built somewhere in the Midwest. American Electric Power, the nation’s
largest producer of electricity, says the new plant will be more efficient
and pollute less than traditional coal plants. But critics say if utilities
were doing more to promote energy efficiency, they wouldn’t need to build
new power plants that burn fossil fuels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Erin Toner reports:
Coal-fired power plants are blamed for contributing to air pollution and global warming and aggravating health problems such as asthma. In the 1970s, Congress passed the Clean Air Act to reduce air pollution. But since many coal plants were built before the Clean Air Act, they’ve been exempt from pollution control updates.
So there are a lot of older, dirtier power plants out there. At the same time, demand for electricity is increasing. To meet demand, many utilities, including Ohio-based American Electric Power, are looking at building new plants, or adding on to their old ones. American Electric Power spokesperson Melissa McHenry says the company needs a new plant that will last at least 30 years.
“As we looked forward, you’re looking at increasingly stringent air quality regulations, so we wanted to ensure we would have a plant that would have improved environmental performance.”
And McHenry says the cleanest, and most efficient coal-burning process, is something practically brand-new to the industry. It’s called Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle, or IGCC. It converts coal to gas, and then removes pollutants from the gas before it’s burned. The process results in almost zero emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, nitrogen oxides, which cause smog, and mercury, which is toxic to people and animals. There’s also much less carbon dioxide pollution, which is believed to contribute to global warming. And gasification is said to be twice as efficient as traditional coal plants.
There are a couple of IGCC plants in the US, but they’re small – only about a quarter of the size of a traditional coal plant. American Electric Power’s IGCC plant would be the biggest one to date – a full-size plant that would serve the power needs of more than a million homes in the Midwest. American Electric Power Spokesperson Melissa McHenry says this plant be only the first of its kind.
“We’re stepping up to build the first one and we think there will be more as we need additional generation capacity. And we think other utilities, you know, obviously other utilities have announced plans to look at this since we have announced ours. The U.S. has significant reserves of coal available, and we think it’s very important that we are able to use this domestic fuel source in a more environmentally responsible way going forward.”
Most environmentalists agree that IGCC is a much improved way to make power. But they say it’s not the best way, since it still depends on a non-renewable energy source – coal. Environmental groups say relying on coal is not a long-term solution to growing energy needs. Although, the coal industry says there is at least a 200-year supply. Marty Kushler is with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. He says utilities should consider ways to reduce the need to build new power plants.
“There are a number of other resource options available that can be achieved at a lower cost than building and fueling and operating a new power plant, such as energy efficiency. Energy efficiency can save electricity at a cost that is less than half the cost of building, fueling and operating a new power plant.”
But getting people to use less power isn’t that easy. Kushler says more states should implement power bill surcharges to fund programs to encourage the public to use more energy efficient appliances and cut electricity use.
But even with those kinds of programs, almost everyone agrees coal will be a part of the American energy mix for some time. And people in the energy industry say gasification is the future of coal power.
Jim Childress is with the Gasification Technologies Council. He says the only drawbacks right now are money. IGCC is about 20 percent more expensive than traditional coal power production. And he says there are a lot of bugs to work out in engineering one of these plants.
“The base technology is set. The question mark is based upon marrying that technology with about three, four, five major components and getting the darn thing to run right.”
Childress says the tough part is getting technology that’s working now on a small scale to work in a full-size coal plant.
American Electric Power says its Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle plant will cost 2 billion dollars, and should be online by 2010. The company is expected to announce a site for the new plant by summer.
Farmers in Minnesota are growing crops for energy and constructing anew biomass power plant. It could be a big boost for rural business andrenewable energy development. But as Kathryn Herzog reports for theGreat Lakes Radio Consortium some environmental activists are concernedthe energy project may be going too far too fast: