Clean Coal Isn't Climate-Friendly Yet
USA: October 10, 2005
NEW YORK - The world's first substantially cleaner coal plants are being
planned in the United States, but they may do little to cut global
warming risks until the US forms climate regulations, experts said.
US utilities are planning a fleet of new coal plants amid bountiful
domestic supplies of the fuel and all-time high natural gas prices.
But only a fraction of those will use the Holy Grail of clean coal
technology -- integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) -- because of
the high initial cost.
IGCC gasifies coal before it's burned, cutting large quantities of
pollutants harmful to human health, such as particulates, small
components and mercury, from going up the smokestack.
"This is the way we need to go to preserve the coal option," said John
Stowell, environmental strategist at utility Cinergy Corp.
IGCC can be paired with pipes that capture the leading greenhouse gas
carbon dioxide. Most scientists believe greenhouse gases lead to global
warming that could have catastrophic consequences such as rising seas and
Capturing can be added much more cheaply to IGCC than conventional coal
American Electric Power Co Inc. and Cinergy plan to build IGCC plants in
the Midwest in the next decade. Both companies are also involved with the
US Energy Department's FutureGen coal demonstration project which aims to
But they don't plan yet to add the capturing equipment on the IGCC plants
they aim to build.
That concerns some environmentalists, especially as the technology could
increase coal use and open up vast areas of high sulfur coal in the
Midwest to mining that have been off limits since the 1990 Clean Air Act.
"If IGCC is not built with carbon capture and storage, it may as well be
the old dirty stuff," said Dave Hamilton, the Sierra Club's global
warming program director. "It will be a cumulative increase in our carbon
President George W. Bush dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol on global
warming soon into his first term. That means US companies aren't held to
limit greenhouse gases as they are in most other industrialized
"Until there is such a requirement we're not going to put that technology
in place at this point," said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for AEP.
IGCC start-up costs can run 20 percent over conventional plants, but new
incentives could ease the pain.
The new federal Energy Act contains up to $800 million in investment tax
credits for IGCC. Those could help utilities build six to 10 of the first
commercial IGCC plants by 2010 or soon after, said Stuart Dalton, a power
expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry funded
Dalton said those incentives are in addition to billions in other federal
coal, gasification and carbon sequestration incentives as well as
incentives in Illinois and other states.
"It makes it (IGCC) something people are considering now, even more than
six months ago," he said.
In addition to the start-up costs, electricity prices could rise if power
plant operators adopt carbon capturing technology, according to a recent
But carbon capturing on IGCC plants adds only 25 percent to the cost of
the electricity, compared to a 60 percent cost boost for electricity from
conventional coal plants that add capturing, said Ed Lowe, the
gasification manager at GE Energy. GE Energy develops IGCC units for
utilities with privately held Bechtel.
In addition, Lowe said, IGGC's can remove 90 percent of the mercury in
coal at one-tenth of the cost as conventional clean coal plants. And GE
also aims to halve the startup cost, he said.
MIDWEST COAL MINING BOOM?
IGGC plants are so clean that utilities hope soon they will lead to a
boost in Midwestern coal mining.
Connie Holmes, a spokeswoman with the National Mining Association, said
IGCC and other clean coal technologies could open high-sulfur coal fields
in Illinois, Ohio, Western Kentucky and Pennsylvania that miners have
avoided since the 1990 Clean Air Act made burning fuel from the region
US electricity demand should rise 50 percent from 2003 to 2025, according
to the DOE. Much of that generation could be coal-based as natural gas
supplies thin and as US communities protest the building of liquefied
natural gas (LNG) ports.
More than 90 percent of power plants built since the late 1990s run on
gas. As a result, gas prices, which averaged about $2 per mmBtu
throughout the 1990s, are on track to average a record $7 per mmBtu this
year, their third consecutive record year.
In the mid-1990s, not one utility had plans to build a coal plant. Now
more than 120 US coal plants have been proposed, more in the last 12
months than the last 12 years, according to the National Energy
Companies are eyeing looming carbon caps, such as those envisioned by the
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a group of nine northeastern states.
RGGI seeks to break with Bush by forming regional carbon dioxide markets.
While utilities don't yet capture carbon, those with IGCC could be well
placed to do so in the future. AEP agrees that over time, there could be
"We feel that for the operating life of the plant, 40 or 50 or 60 years,
it (IGCC) is the best and most cost effective route to take for customers
and shareholders," said AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp.
Some environmentalists are cautiously optimistic about IGCC, but say
renewables such as wind power and solar could replace some of the need
for coal. "We believe it should be considered the requirement for a
modern power plant, but until (carbon constraint) happens, this is still
just the shiny object that distracts us from the nearly 500 dirty coal
plants that are polluting the air," said Greenpeace energy policy
specialist John Coequyt.
Story by Timothy Gardner