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"Clean coal" technology test underway

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"Clean coal" got a mention in President Obama's State of the Union address this week. Along with nuclear power and alternative energy sources, the President listed clean coal as an important sources for energy for the country.

He also promised to move forward on climate change reductions. And here, America is in a bind. Almost half of our electricity comes from coal. But compared to other power sources, coal produces the most carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Industry is testing new technology in hopes of fulfilling the promise of "clean coal." Shawn Allee has this update on a test project that has some hard work left to do.

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If you live outside coal-mining country, you may have missed this news about a clean-coal project in West Virginia.

"A big announcement has the state and members of the coal industry very excited about the future of the state's most valuable resource. Good Evening, I'm April Hall..."

The fanfare's about a company called American Electric Power. Last fall, AEP started a test that could begin a clean-coal revolution.

"The Mountaineer power plant in Mason County is going to be the first facility in the world to use carbon capture and sequestration technology to cut down on the carbon dioxide that that plant emits. AEP is hoping the implementation ..."

The Mountaineer test project made headlines because there's talk of clamping down on America's carbon dioxide emissions. Coal produces nearly twice its own weight in carbon dioxide. So, if we could bury or sequester the stuff that would help solve the coal industry's carbon dioxide problem. Expectations are high, but the company is keeping its cool.

"The tension we're fighting against is the fact that you can't go from concepts on paper to commercial scale in one step."

Gary Spitznogle runs an engineering division for AEP, and if you think he sounds cautious, it's because he is. Spitznogle says AEP needs to validate carbon capture and sequestration.

"Validation is kind of that intermediate step between what is truly research work and full commercial scale."

Validation is another way of saying this technology mostly works but let's take it for a spin. Let's run bigger and bigger tests, so we learn more and more.

"The test is treating the amount of gas that would be coming from a 20MW generating unit, so that's very small."

From 20 megawatts now to two hundred fifty megawatts in a few years - that's still less than a quarter of the power generation at the Mountaineer plant.

But what's the point of tests like this? Well, there's a problem with carbon capture and sequestration: it wastes coal. This waste is called parasitic load. Parasitic - as in parasite.

Spitznogle: "And because it's taking the power it's consuming from the generating plant that you're controlling, it's in a sense a parasite of that power plant."

Allee: "Sounds kind of nefarious."

Spitznogle: "The reason is that it's such a focus is that, no matter what technology you look at, the number is large."

Carbon capture and sequestration equipment need power. That adds a parasitic load of thirty percent onto a coal plant. That means it takes thirty percent more coal to generate the same amount of electricity for customers. Spitznogle needs to find out if his technology cuts that parasitic load figure. Other people hope he finds out, too.

"The overarching concern I would have today is urgency."

Ernest Moniz runs MIT's Energy Institute. He says if power companies don't get a handle on parasitic load we're in for higher utility bills. One estimate puts the cost of clean-coal power at seventy percent above today's prices. Moniz says we need bigger tests and more of them.

"We're pushing up against the envelope and we have to do it. If we're going to be serious about using our extensive coal reserves in a time of carbon constraints, well, then we have to just demonstrate this technology."

 If we fail to demonstrate clean coal technology, the choices aren't good. We'd have to abandon our cheap coal supplies or we'd burn dirty coal, then deal with the costs of climate change.

Talk about parasitic load.

For The Environment Report, I'm Shawn Allee.

Copyright 2010. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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