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Put coal back on the map

By Gerald Ondrey |

When I was growing up in western Pennsylvania, we used to have notebooks in school with a map of the state on the cover. Back then (1960s), local children quickly learned that by tracing the boundaries of certain counties, one could create a silhouette of a coal miner at the center of the state. The point is, coal was important; we heated our homes with it, we burned it to make electricity, and if we misbehaved, Santa Claus filled our stocking with it.

Of course, back then the coal industry was beginning to come under fire, not only for the environmental damage caused by coal mining (especially strip mines), but also because of damage to the forests caused by acid rain, which was correlated to the SO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Today, coal-fired power plants are running much cleaner than four decades ago thanks to environmental controls for SO2, NOx, Hg and dust — controls that were added to comply with ever tightening regulations. And now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; Washington, D.C.) is moving to regulate coal-fired plants even more, not only with respect to the greenhouse gas (GHG) carbon dioxide, but also with respect to cooling water and the disposal of coal-combustion residuals.

This is not the place, nor is there space available to discuss the pros and cons of stricter EPA regulations on the power and petroleum refining industries — the two sectors EPA claims are the biggest industrial sources for GHG emissions in the U.S. — not to mention the timing of doing so following one of the most difficult economic times in U.S. history. The issues involved are very complex, both scientifically and economically.

The fact is, however, that the last two to three years have seen a large number of coal-related projects in the U.S. either cancelled, put on hold or changed mid course. In the power sector, its very difficult to receive permitting to build conventional coal-fired plants. Advanced power generation projects, such as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), have been cancelled, too. Although there are many reasons for these cancellations — rising construction costs and the growing availability of cheap unconventional natural gas, to name just two — uncertainties about pending and future regulations regarding GHGs is the one reason most cited for halting coal-based projects. Investors are not willing to put the money forward for a 5–6 year project when the playing field might change two years into the project.

China, in contrast, seems to be a country with long-term goals to utilize its abundant coal reserves — for making electricity, for making liquid fuels and substitute natural gas, and for making basic chemicals (see Coal-to-Chemicals, pp. 16–20, this issue). Although many of these mega projects do not include carbon capture, many are using advanced technology for the first time, or integrating production units that can utilize byproducts (for example, urea production is CO2 negative).

Last November, U.S. Energy Secretary Chu said that the success of China and other countries in clean energy industries represents a new “Sputnik Moment” for the U.S. and requires a similar mobilization of America’s innovative machine. Let’s hope that Secretary Chu’s call does not fall on deaf ears, and the country moves forward to better utilize its large coal reserves in an environmentally sound fashion.

Although the costs may seem insurmountable today — just as they did 30–40 years ago with regards to adding scrubbers to remove SO2 and other pollutants from the fluegas of coal-fired power plants — we should be encouraged by the efforts underway to make coal plants more efficient and cleaner. Chemical engineers are driving these efforts; lets hope they will receive the support necessary to carry them through.

Gerald Ondrey
Senior Editor, Frankfurt am Main

 

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