Clean Coal is Dead, Long Live Clean Coal

The coal industry bungled its response to extreme environmentalists when it assigned the sobriquet “clean coal” to IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) power plants.

This was a huge mistake, meant to assuage the political elite in Washington DC, and extreme environmentalists.

Instead, the term clean coal has backfired, leaving the coal industry worse off than if it had taken a principled stand, based on facts, rather than adopting a strategy of appeasement.

By inferentially agreeing CO2 emissions were the cause of global warming with their proposal to use IGCC power plants to remove and sequester CO2, the coal industry acknowledged guilt, when there was no need to.

From that point forward, the coal industry was in retreat.

Compounding the initial error, IGCC power plants have proven to be exorbitantly expensive, unable even to compete with expensive wind and solar.

IGCC power plants cook the coal to produce a synthesis gas, syngas, consisting of CO2, hydrogen and carbon monoxide, where the CO2 is captured, or stripped from the syngas, leaving mainly hydrogen that is burned in a gas turbine to generate electricity.

The CO2 could then, supposedly, be sequestered underground. Since the ability to sequester CO2 underground is unproven, the underlying concept of IGCC power plants was flawed from the beginning. See, The Why and How of Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

IGCC Schematic from DOE Report
IGCC Schematic from DOE Report

A fact based argument can be made, in combination with allies who question whether CO2 is the cause of global warming, promoting Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants as clean coal.

The argument could first be made that traditional coal-fired power plants have already been dramatically improved. For example:

  • The level of coal-fire power generation today is essentially the same as it was in 1990, yet total emitted tons of SO2, NOx and particulates have been reduced 70%. According to a World Health Organization study, the United States’ air quality is among the top seven best of industrialized nations.
  • When the “American Lung Association listed the ten counties in the United States with the worst air quality, every county was in California” where there are no coal-fired power plants.

Then, the full story of Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants could be told.

  • Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants have a thermal efficiency approaching 45% HHV, with the potential to achieve a thermal efficiency of 50% HHV, compared with traditional coal-fired power plants having a thermal efficiency of 33%. This improvement in efficiency also results in a corresponding reduction in emissions of virtually all types, which in combination with modern control technologies would meet all EPA requirements other than for CO2 emissions.

Only one Ultra-Supercritical coal-fired power plant has been built in the United States, AEP’s Turk, Ultra-supercritical plant in Arkansas.

While the United States is being prevented from building Ultra-Supercritical coal-fired power plants, many are being built in China and elsewhere around the world.

Meanwhile, IGCC power plants have turned out to be white elephants costing as much as nuclear power plants to build.

Three IGCC plants have been built in the United States: One by Tampa Electric, a second by Duke at Edwardsport, Indiana, and now, the Kemper power plant by The Southern Company.

The Kemper plant is now projected to cost $6.2 billion, and a partner of the Southern Company, South Mississippi Electric Power Association, has backed out of the project.

Costs were to have been capped at $2.9 billion, but with a cost of $6.2 billion, and still possibly rising, rate payers in Mississippi may see a very large increase in what they pay for electricity.

IGCC power plants have been an absolute failure.

Perhaps it’s time for a new group of leaders in the coal industry, who believe in the ability of coal to provide inexpensive and environmentally compatible electricity using Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants, to step forward.

It’s not too late to bestow the sobriquet clean coal on Ultra-supercritical plants, especially as they are being built around the world.

Coal would still have to compete with natural gas, but the arbitrary restrictions created by the EPA preventing the use of coal could be removed … and that could ultimately benefit America.

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