Do you consider yourself as a person that cares about the environment? Are you concerned about climate change? Are you concerned about oil pipelines traversing our lakes and rivers threatening our fresh water resources? Then you understand energy production from High Efficiency Low Emissions (HELE) coal is an important part of the plan for a better environment, right? No?
If we ignore the fact that new coal powered capacity will continue to come online over the next twenty years, we bury our heads in the sand when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other atmospheric pollution. We need to change the way we use coal and start using thermolysis for gasification rather than combustion for burning. By choosing thermolysis instead of combustion, we can produce energy without producing pollution that harms our air and water. In order to foster renewable energy sources like solar and wind, we need to find a common denominator fuel to let renewables compete on a wide scale. That common denominator fuel is hydrogen. We can make hydrogen from coal with significantly reduced pollution while we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. We can also make hydrogen from water and create zero pollution. We can increase our capacity to make hydrogen from water while we decrease our use of coal over the long term. We can phase coal out of our energy mix, but it will take time and we must have a pragmatic approach.
RMP draws contrast between the common misunderstanding between what is combustion and what is a non–combustion chemical reaction. Burning coal is not the same thing as thermolysis or the thermal decomposition of matter without releasing particulate matter to atmosphere. The byproducts of thermolysis are inert and saleable for road making material and other construction material.
Be it known to all within the sound of my voice, whosoever shall be found guilty of burning coal shall suffer the loss of his head.
-King Edward II of England, 1276
Coal has generally had three major knocks against it with regard to pollution and its negative effects on the environment: 1) CO2 emissions, 2) Sulfur Dioxide emissions, & 3) Mercury emissions. Other complaints about coal involve NOx’s and other particulate matter released to atmosphere. So if we could produce cleaner energy from our abundance of US coal without releasing those types of pollution to the atmosphere, we could make a positive impact on the hard reality that coal isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
The Kemper Power Plant in Kemper Mississippi will take a very low grade & dirty coal called lignite and convert it to synthetic natural gas (SNG). The Kemper plant will capture 65% of the CO2 produced by the conversion/gasification process, have little to no particulate matter, SOx’s, NOx’s, Ammonia, or mercury pollution. It will also produce 582 megawatts of power, create 12,000 direct & indirect construction jobs, and 1,300 permanent jobs. The SNG has other potential uses too; SNG can be reformed into pure hydrogen to power Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles which only emit water vapor as exhaust and eliminate our need to import oil from hostile Middle Eastern countries.
This means, not only can we make clean energy from dirty fuels, we can migrate away from crude oil which the USA simply does not have enough of to supply our energy needs. The USA imports more than half of the crude oil we consume. Oil also accounts for roughly 13.7% of our import/export deficit at September 2015 and we spend billions of dollars annually on military expenses to protect oil infrastructure assets and maritime routes in hostile Middle Eastern countries. Oil also threatens our fresh water resources with contamination from pipelines, railcars, and above ground & below ground storage tanks.
It’s hard to talk about coal when most people just hope it will go away if we focus on renewables; but the world doesn’t work that way. Let’s talk about coal from a more global perspective than we are used to seeing in America. Let us remember the earth is shaped less like America and more like a sphere anyway. Most people reading this will probably be from America or some other developed nation but there are more people in this world than just those of us in developed nations. In fact, 1.3 billion people on this planet will never read this message. 1.3 billion people who badly want electricity and internet access will never see it. This message is only readable by people who live in nations where coal is used to produce electricity.
There is something, however, those 1.3 billion people without electricity will be demanding over the next 20 years: they will be demanding their leaders build coal fired power plants so they can have access to the same electricity you and I have. They’ll be building coal fired power plants because they want cheap and reliable access to electricity. They want coal so they can build and operate water treatment plants to have clean drinking water. It’s somewhat ironic that coal is demonized as something that threatens our lives when coal actually plays an important part in our high standard living and good health.
Here are some facts we all should wrap our heads around:
- there is zero evidence to suggest mitigation action arising from any climate treaty will come close to achieving emissions reductions necessary to limit atmospheric concentration of CO2 to 450ppm
- coal remains the world’s fastest growing fossil fuel. Its current contribution to global primary energy consumption (30.1%) is its highest since 1970. In Southeast Asia alone demand is expected to grow by 4.8% a year through to 2035 as the region turns to coal to fuel its growing energy needs
- Moving the current average global efficiency rate of coal-fired power plants from 33% to 40% by deploying more advanced off- the-shelf technology could cut 2 gigatons of CO2 emissions now, while allowing affordable energy for economic development and poverty reduction.
- Deploying American IGCC coal gasification technologies to poor countries could help our fellow man produce near zero emissions energy from coal with Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS).
- Coal, if synthesized into natural gas, could eliminate the need for oil refined into gasoline & diesel. We could use coal (& many other things) to power Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles with only water vapor as a tailpipe emission.
The international community must recognize that in many cases the economic and energy security priorities of the world’s emerging and developing economies will be met through coal-fired electricity. Coal will also continue to play a critical role in building modern infrastructure in an urbanizing world as the key raw material for steel and cement production.
Coal provides 40% of the world’s electricity. It will soon overtake oil as the world’s largest source of primary energy. According to research by the IEA, coal demand in Southeast Asia is expected to grow by 4.8% a year through to 2035 as the region turns to coal to fuel its growing energy needs. In the 2011 edition of the World Energy Outlook, the IEA predicted that more than half of the on-grid electricity needed to meet energy requirements for all scenarios would come from coal. Global coal demand is expected to reach 9 billion tons per year by the year 2019.
Coal use may be waning where you live and in the periodicals you read, but in the big picture it is growing in key demographics. Despite popular environmentalist contentment about coal use waning and bankruptcies being filed in America, coal is not dead. In developing countries coal growth is driven by the need to deliver affordable, reliable energy to populations that currently lack modern energy services. It is also driven by the significant trend towards urbanization where coal-fired electricity helps power modern cities but is also a key ingredient in steel and cement production.
Many developing countries are building, or planning to build, new fleets of coal-fired power plants. A report by the World Resources Institute highlighted that 1,199 plants (representing 1,400 GW) are anticipated across 59 countries. These countries are doing this because for them coal is the most affordable, accessible and reliable source of power. Other sources of energy will make a significant contribution, but for many coal will be the cornerstone of their energy system.
American gasification technologies like those being employed at Kemper in Mississippi should be employed across America and exported to developing nations to help eliminate emissions from energy produced from coal. Coal gasification will also give us the ability to power FCEVs and eliminate our collective need for oil which threatens fresh water. Near zero emissions in SOx, NOx, Mercury, Ammonia, and significantly reduced CO2 can be achieved with modern coal gasification technologies for energy production.
We can act right now to make a difference and share our technology with the world’s poor or we can watch more coal fired power plants get built the wrong way in developing countries that we are currently obsoleting in the United States. We can do this while we simultaneously continue to invest in cleaner infrastructure like wind and solar as we work toward phasing coal out of the global energy mix over the long term.
The average efficiency of coal-fired power plants around the world today is approximately 33%. This is well below the state-of-the-art rate of 45% and even ‘off-the-shelf’ rates of around 40%. Increasing the efficiency of coal-fired power plants by 1% reduces CO2 emissions by between 2-3%. Moving the current average global efficiency rate of coal-fired power plants from 33% to 40% by deploying more advanced technology could cut 2 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions. This is the equivalent of:
- India’s annual CO2 emissions
- running the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme for53 years at its current rate, or
- running the Kyoto Protocol three times over.
Modern coal gasification plants have the potential to reach even higher rates of efficiency approaching 65%. Companies like Synthesis Energy Systems are deploying state of the art gasification technologies in countries like China that allow low rank coals and biomass to become clean energy and pure hydrogen. RMP remains focused on educating the public about all types of clean energy and the advancement of the hydrogen economy.
It would behoove all good environmentalists to remember the world is not shaped like America but rather more rounded and spherical with over a billion people who have no access to electricity that desperately want it.
At RMP, we believe that all the world’s energy can one day come from hydrogen produced from solar, wind and municipal wastes. But, it will take years to build the infrastructure necessary to realize this vision. And, this vision cannot be realized until we adopt a common denominator fuel that allows water to compete as a fuel source. That common denominator is hydrogen. Even the word hydrogen means water genesis. By using fuel sources like coal, natural gas, synthetic natural gas, and garbage to make hydrogen we give water a chance to compete. If we give water a chance to compete it can win. It will win. If you love water and want to consider yourself a responsible environmentalist, you need to think about the realities of energy from coal. If we want to make a difference for the good of the environment, the economy, and our fresh water resources, we need to adopt pragmatism as our approach to energy production and understand coal will be in the mix for years to come. We can either make the best lemonade with the lemons we have or bury our heads in the sand.
Stay tuned to RMP to learn more about coal as we will be publishing many more posts to help you learn about clean energy and the hydrogen economy. We will be taking an in depth look at the Polk Power Plant in Tampa as well as the Kemper Power Plant in Mississippi in future posts.
I will reiterate this important point one more time: combustion is the enemy. It may sound like a subtle difference to the lay person not involved in studying the production of energy but combustion and thermolysis are two critically different things. Gasifying coal or biomass or garbage is by no means the same thing as “burning” it. Burning or combusting is what causes the nasties to get into our water and atmosphere. The chemical decomposition of matter through thermolysis is much different.
Portions of this post were excerpted and adapted from the World Coal Association’s PACE platform concept paper prepared for the COP21 conference in Paris coming up soon in November & December of 2015.