Coal’s advantages offset by pollution

Adding coal capacity could increase energy security, but could come at a cost to the environment

Our use of coal has more than doubled from 500 million tons in 1970 to 1.156 billion tons in 2004. With 94 new coal plants in the planning stage across the country, we will add another 20 percent to the national coal generating capacity.

Adding coal capacity has significant short-term economic advantages by expanding electrical output, keeping electrical prices low and increasing energy security by providing an alternative to imported oil and gas. But it also adds to global warming and increases pollution and health problems associated with fossil fuel combustion.

According to Mark Clayton of the Christian Science Monitor, Illinois leads the nation with 10 new proposed plants. A recent report to Governor Blagojevich recommends delaying tougher pollution control standards for 21 older coal plants to avoid disadvantaging Illinois economically while attempting to get the federal government to tighten national standards.

New plants could be much cleaner than old ones. Advanced technologies have improved the efficiency of coal-fired plants by 21 percent with similar reductions in carbon dioxide and even greater reductions in other emissions.

While the Clean Air Act of 1970 helped to reduce sulfur emissions, it caused widespread switching from high-sulfur Illinois coal to low-sulfur western coal.

According to Robin Parker president of SRT Group Inc., if mercury emission controls are adopted, a switch from Wyoming’s low-sulfur, high-mercury coal to high-sulfur, low-mercury Midwest and Eastern coals could result. Illinois coal could recapture markets with its high heat value, reduced ash and lower transportation costs.

SRT has a process that could reduce sulfur emissions while serving as a relatively low-cost source of hydrogen. Bromine, sulfur dioxide and water react to produce hydrogen bromide and sulfuric acid from the flue gases of a coal-burning power plant. Hydrogen bromide is then electrolyzed into hydrogen and bromide. The hydrogen is captured for use in transportation or stored in a fuel cell to produce electricity during times of peak demand. The bromide is recycled back to the emission scrubbing process. The voltage needed to electrolyze the hydrogen is half that used in the electrolysis of water.

This process could shift sulfur emission controls from an ongoing cost to a revenue source. As intriguing as this process sounds, it does not limit the release of global warming gases.

The proposed Federal FutureGen project will make hydrogen and electricity from coal while capturing carbon dioxide and sequestering it underground. The process starts with a carbon source like coal, which reacts with steam and oxygen at high temperature and pressure. The synthetic fuel that results is used to run gas and steam turbines similar to natural gas combined cycle generating plants. Two such plants are in operation in the U.S.—a 250-MW unit in Florida and a 300-MW unit in Indiana. The Indiana plant is a 50-year-old rebuilt coal-fired plant that achieved dramatic reductions in SO2 and NOx emissions. Since C02 emissions are highly concentrated, it is expected that they can be inexpensively collected and injected into underground storage. The Natural Resources Defense Council believes the project can work and should be tried. It would take 10 years and cost $1 billion to build.

If successful, these technologies will add to the cost of power production. Their acceptance in the marketplace is likely to depend on mandates and incentives. While other environmental impacts from increased coal consumption remain, reducing combustion emissions would be a significant improvement over existing practices

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