To Coal or Not To Coal?

by Richard T. Stuebi

A number of people recently have contacted me for my perspective on a large new coal powerplant being considered here in Ohio.

The plant is proposed by American Municipal Power of Ohio (AMP-Ohio), a nonprofit wholesale power supplier that provides electricity to several municipal utilities in Ohio, including Cleveland Public Power (CPP).

The implicit question is whether it’s a prudent course of action for AMP-Ohio, and for its clients such as CPP, to commit to building a new coal plant in a world in which climate change appears to be accelerating, and in which future constraints on carbon emissions to combat climate change will be relatively more burdensome for utilities that rely upon coal for power generation. Many environmental advocates clearly think that this proposed coal plant is just plain a bad idea.

I lunched last week with CPP Commissioner Ivan Henderson to get a more detailed view of CPP’s plans for subscribing to a portion of AMP-Ohio’s new coal plant. And, from my discussions with Commissioner Henderson, it appears as if there are two underreported aspects of CPP’s plan that merit consideration before objections are lodged.

First, CPP’s go-ahead to their share of the AMP-Ohio coal plant is contingent upon the results of an independent assessment by an engineering consultant (to be selected) of the viability of implementing the ECO2 CO2 carbon capture technology developed by Powerspan Corporation of New Hampshire. This technology, essentially a CO2 scrubber, is designed to remove 90% of CO2 emissions from the plant’s flue stream, and is being tested in pilot scale at the R.E. Burger powerplant owned and operated by First Energy (NYSE: FE). If the assessment indicates that the Powerspan ECO2 CO2 scrubber technology is not-ready-for-primetime, CPP is out of the deal.

Second, assuming the new coal plant is built, AMP-Ohio is committed to retiring its 1950’s vintage Gorsuch coal powerplant. Clearly, replacing an old relic with a new plant benefitting from 90% CO2 capture will lead to substantial CO2 emission reductions, relative to the status quo.

Thus, there is more to the story than might initially appear to the casual reader. Assuming that both of the above conditions apply, the construction of this new coal plant is actually a good idea, not a bad idea. The moral of the story is that environmental advocates need not have a rabid knee-jerk reaction against new coal plants, if new coal plant construction results in substantial CO2 emission reductions.

Make no mistake: I love wind energy and photovoltaics. However, they only provide intermittent sources of generation. On the electricity grid, lacking truly economic large-scale electricity storage, wind and PV cannot fulfill the role of dispatchable (a.k.a. “firm”) power.

I also love energy efficiency, and we should all do more of it. Energy efficiency can reduce our electricity generation requirements considerably. Ultimately, though, in our current society, we still will need some form of firm generation.

Coal power with 90% CO2 capture fits that bill pretty darn well. If the Powerspan technology works as advertised at reasonable economics, it might be a whole lot cheaper and more quickly available than zero-emission baseload technologies, such as IGCC with carbon sequestration or advanced nuclear designs. In which case, Powerspan is a company to watch.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

3 replies
  1. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Richard,I have not followed this project closely, but could you clarify somethings? When (like what year) would this pilot carbon capture be 'graded'?If the technology does not reach 90% removal of C02 emissions and CPP "is out" will the plant deal end? What assurances are there that the 1950s plant will indeed be shut down? Say that demand grows by as much as the old plant produces in this service area while the new plant is being built.

  2. TonyGuitar
    TonyGuitar says:

    Coal is OK as long as Clean Coal Tech goes with it. Tip..Canadian government refuses to grant domestic sales licenses to both Zenn [Quebec] and Dynasty [B.C.] EV manufacturers. The Zenn vehicle is an award winner in other countries.CBC video news clip.. [Mansbridge] have some merit …Canada has two stations serving more than one grade of bio fuel…[Whoop-de-do].A UN approved campaign to retro-fit thousands of coal-gen plants with various clean technology would make vastly more improvement.North America is 96% dependent on one single vehicle fuel .. OIL. [Brazil =75% Bio-fuel.] [Which is the banana republic now?]A swing to battery, compressed air and clean coal-gen would really reduce pollution….would lower the value of oil….would lower tensions in the M.E….would reduce health hazard smog in cities….would lead to a kiosk road tax collection system…would enrage Exxon, Chevron and GM, backers of both Dems and Reps; Libs and Conservatives, not to mention the wrath of Alberta and Texas….would lead to unemployment and tax losses during transition….would be the correct an honorable thing to do. = TG

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