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October 24, 2006


Mark C R (aka MCR)


I suppose the same sorts of arguements can be made in using "pyrolysed biomass" or "virgin biomass" (unpreprocessed) ....

Something I am interested in at the moment, in particular with reference to operation in SOFCs... (CHP units).

david foster

The gasification plants are combined-cycle, whereas I presume the pulverized-coal plants are plain old steam turbine. So, there must be a significant efficiency difference, which should mean there is some price for coal at which the efficiency savings begin to outweigh the additional capital cost of the gasification. Wonder how much of an increase it would take?

Also, the saleability of CO2 byproduct should vary significantly by location.


I've covered coal gasification for several years as a journalist in the utility industry. The Time/CNN story barely scratches the surface of this subject. A few important points the story omitted:
1) A key advantage of coal gasification is its potential to produce liquid fuels for transportation. By some estimates, coal-based gasoline would compete favorably with gasoline at about $2.50/gallon. And of course we needn't fight wars in the Middle East to secure coal supplies, so building a coal-to-liquids industry would bring a major national-security dividend.
2) It's true that coal gasification technology has not been proven in the United States at a commercial scale, but Europe and Asia have had more experience with it. The problem is U.S. power companies tend to disregard technology developments that happen overseas.
3) The nascent state the U.S. coal-gasification industry means it suffers a shortage of engineering capacity and vendor-warranty support, as well as financial risk appetite. Nobody wants to be on the hook for the first generation of commercial IGCC plants. Also, gasification suffers some operational limitations at higher altitudes.
How can this situation change? The answer is for people like you and me to encourage policymakers -- including legislators and public utility commissioners -- to support IGCC with public funding, in recognition of its importance for national security and climate stabilization. At the same time, policies should hold pulverized-coal developers accountable for inferior emissions performance, vis-a-vis carbon and mercury.
I covered these and related subjects in a pair of stories recently, in Public Utilities Fortnightly magazine, a policy journal serving the utility industry. PDFs can be downloaded from my website (www.mtburr.com) or directly via these links:
Battle Royal: Pulverized Coal v. IGCC, December 2005 (Titled "Claiming Coal's Future" on www.mtburr.com)
Facing the Climate Challenge, August 2006

david foster

"A key advantage of coal gasification is its potential to produce liquid fuels for transportation"...true--but these facilities would be distinct from the power plants. Nobody is talking about plants that feed *both* a colocated electrical plant and a liquid-fuel production plant--or are they? Should they be?

Reality Czech

Whether or not it should be done, generation of electricity from F-T off-gas is commond and "polygeneration" plants have been on the drawing board for a while.

Paul Dietz

Nobody is talking about plants that feed *both* a colocated electrical plant and a liquid-fuel production plant--or are they?

I believe all the CTL plants being proposed will also produce electricity. The reason is that the FT reactor doesn't convert all the syngas, and some of what is converted becomes methane or low-value light hydrocarbons, and it's easier to just burn that stuff in a combustion turbine.


Yes, I believe most (maybe all) developers of coal-gasification plants in the United States are considering how liquids could enter their business case. Arguably liquids could create a market-arbitrage opportunity for gasification plants -- i.e., when electricity demand is low, they could produce liquid fuels. When demand is high, they could switch the turbines on.
A major push for this possibility is coming from the Department of Defense, which wants a U.S. coal-to-liquids industry to provide secure domestic sources of jet fuel, etc.


david foster: "A key advantage of coal gasification is its potential to produce liquid fuels for transportation"...true--but these facilities would be distinct from the power plants. Nobody is talking about plants that feed *both* a colocated electrical plant and a liquid-fuel production plant--or are they? Should they be?

I work in the biorefinery (although have interests in all things "green chemistry" or "green engineering")... and BTL with co-electricity generation ... in an "INTEGRATED BIOREFINERY" ... generating chemicals, fuels and (combined-cycle) electricity (if possible) is the whole idea!

*but also having least environmental impact(s) and land footprint.

The problem is CTL, BTL and GTL (a more mature tech) are all highly expensive and require a comprehensive infrastructure...

It still warrants discussion however!

Interesting I was just reading a paper on "SBA-15 Iron supported catalyst" - with potential in FT reactions (typically Co but ocassionally Fe catalysts, I believe Shell use the latter?).

As (I was lucky!) Dr Richard Pike (chief exec - Royal Society of Chemistry, UK) once lectured me -"Gas-to-liquid (GTL) technology" IS A "case study in chemistry, economics and confusion…?"!!!!!!

It's only when all the facts figures and variables are side by side that you can actually see the woods from the trees - so to speak!

Lets see how the Qatar facility runs on GTL. And further economic/environmental feasibility studies need to be done on suitable potential locations of CTL or in my view, PREFERABLY BTL plants.
See FT-PROCESSES. Particularly, James Fraser's October 30, 2005 post.

Mark C R (Chemist), UK


Here are some other points, power execs may consider when planning for new plants:

GE has developed a much cheaper SOFC that converts coal fuel to electricity at a near %50 efficiency:

Such a plant could also incorporate sequestration -- if sequestration proves viable.

Also, the power of wind continues to decrease & real, inexpensive battery backup solutions are available to make wind power more "solid", less intermittent.


If silicon valley's track record can be counted on... Nanosolar aims to greatly reduce the cost of solar power in the short term as well.

Plus you've got Democrats taking over public opinion & a realization of the severity & the undeniable first hand visual impact of the climate crisis.

Basically... making a 60 year bet on a coal power plant is quite a risky bet these days, I'd say. Hopefully those execs are true fiscal conservatives & not crazy neocon right wingers.


Bernard Jones

"...crazy neocon rightwingers"??? If we want people to stop listening to us, this is a great way to start. I'm not American, so this debate is a little distant, but people are the same everywhere; if we are rude about them, they won't want to work with us-especially if they were dubious to begin with.

Energy policy is not a left-right issue, or at least I hope not. I am a regular reader, and a conservative voter.


Bernard Jones wrote: Energy policy is not a left-right issue, or at least I hope not.

Bernard, I'm afraid that energy policy is very much a left-right issue, at least in America. It shouldn't be, but the right has consistently been on the wrong side of most energy issues for many years. They are opposed to conservation and efficiency, are global warming denialists, pro-coal, opposed to pollution control, and like to invade foreign countries that have a lot of oil. Since you aren't from around here, I should explain that "neocons" are a particular flavor of right wingers in this country that primarily drove our Iraq policy. They have been called "crazy" by none other than George H.W. Bush, the father of the present occupier of the White House.


Sorry, Bernie, but George is correct.  Energy policy has become one more political football, probably because the anti-evolution hordes among the Religious Right are easily swayed against all science (climatology).  Another reason is that the left has been pushing conservation and alternatives for 30 years, and it's easy to just position themselves against whatever they're for instead of asking people to grasp and appreciate nuances - especially when that simple-minded opposition is really good for the coal and oil interests which are the GOP's major backers.

GWB's refusal to adopt a sane energy policy, and his brutality in forcing the rest of the GOP to go along with tax breaks for guzzlers and other lunacy, are one reason I'm voting all Dems next month; it's the only way to slow down that juggernaut.


My own political leanings are probably what Clinton would have called - "progressive centrist"... I agree with certain policies on both sides...

But the point is "green chemistry" is APOLITICAL!

BUT... that does not mean one should not actively seek out to understand GEOPOLITICS AND POLICY ISSUES.

It would also be wrong for one poltical side to "hijack" this issue also!!!!

In WWII we had (in the UK) a government of national unity. And luckily both major parties agree as to the seriousness of the problem we face. With climate change the likes of the Clinton Initiative is invaluable since Bill Clinton, now is effectively not part of the percieved US "establishment" - he's almost an acceptable face for both sides in America and is actually quite popular over the pond here (and in the rest of the world). This is not me blowing BC's trumpet - its facts. To be honest I am glad we have someone with sufficient influence, contacts and what we British call "clout" - to make a real difference.

I'm not saying that "one size fits all" approach is the total solution - but it does go along way to help solve such a serious problem as climate change/environmental degredation. In my view "SOCIALOGICAL CHANGE" - which is what will be truely necessary to combat the former - will only be brought about by such a bold scheme as Clinton's.


Bernard is right about the name-calling, though. We should not politicize the issue any more than it already is.
Notice the "conserve" root word in "conservative"? There are strong conservative arguments in favor of building a gasification industry. Just ask James Woolsey. Or John McCain. Or Dick Lugar.
Also, to address Matt's point, there are compelling business reasons for utilities to think long-term about carbon constraints and transportation-market opportunities. Business is business, and increasingly utility executives are recognizing that green and domestic means good business for their companies.


Excuse me, but Bernard is correct. First, religious conservatives in this country are moving toward pro-environmental policies as they become more educated about global warming and national security issues. Second, and much more importantly, the more people on the political left insist on framing energy as a left-right issue, the longer it will take and more difficult it will be to move this country toward a rational, forward-looking energy policy. Finally, people who worry about the loss of jobs in this country are not just right wing nuts. If you want to accomplish something in this area, put your left-right ideology language in the closet and focus on the merits.


What better way to maintain or improve employment levels - through application of the latest and most efficient (green) technologies?

T. Blair has actually said regarding the current situation that this is "a trememdous opportunity" ... economic benefits & environmental can go hand in hand!

THESE ARE THE MERITS - that should certainly never be put in the closet!

Indeed - both sides Left/right are grooming this sort of thinking here in the UK, and have been for a very long time...

Remember its highly lucruative for business to implement the best technologies! "The three bottom line drivers: ECONOMIC, ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL"

Check out these -
The Green Chemistry Network, via RSC (UK).
Green Chemistry Institute, via ACS (USA).

Mark C R (Chemist), UK

Jim Childress

Interesting, wide ranging discussion. For more information on this debate and gasification in general, go to the web site of the Gasification Technologies Council. http://www.gasification.org, or Google "gasification".


Sorry, Dave, but the people claiming that global warming etc. are a conspiracy are, in my experience, universally on the political right if they have declared leanings.  I'm aware that "What Would Jesus Drive?" is also a position held by some people of faith, but they are currently a much smaller group and many seem to lean to the political left.  In contrast, the businesses which are creating the fictitious "controversy" over global warming are almost universally supported by people on the political right.

As a small-c conservative myself, this is very frustrating.  It's made even worse by those businesses using the same tactics and even the same lobbying groups and ad agencies as the tobacco companies did while maintaining that nicotine was not addictive.  Why this isn't noted prominently in every article written about them or quoting one of their spokesmen, I don't know.  Probably because our MSM is owned by those same businesses.

FWIW, I'm solidly in the pro-tech, anti-petroleum camp.  Having seen what happens when better technology replaces an expensive or scarce material with a cheaper and more abundant one, I know exactly what we should be aiming for.  I even wrote it up last year.  Considering what we've spent so far to obtain nothing in Iraq, the cost of buying the batteries and electronics to replace large parts of our petroleum consumption with electricity (and putting up e.g. wind farms to make more electricity) would have been chicken feed.


What a great blog! Normally I try to avoid politics as Jim advises, but this calls for a political observation.

These corporate lobbyists poison both parties, mainly the one in power usually. But the neo-conservatives are a new poison.

Neither conservative or republican, they masquerade as the GOP to push their geo-political ends. Global corporate empire. Oil wars and nuclear proliferation to get the ewxcuse for more invasion, occupation and "nation building", as they name the mess they have made of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's as if the GOP of Lincoln and Fighting Bob LaFollete has been possesed by an evil multinational corporate spirit, exorcism is required. Maybe McCain will do it?

All that politics aside, does anyone remember Jim's article on a fuel cell technology that runs on pulverized coal? And the anti-fouling multi-fuel CeO2/copper fuel cell?

I still think the idea of conversion of conventional coal power plants to fuelcell/turbine with the emissions captured by algae in solar collectors is the very best plan.

Waste treatment, fertilizer, biogas, biodiesel, building heat/cooling, all would be byproducts of this kind of system. And investment in the coversion would be gradual, in stages.

Then as distributed generation and energy storage using wind, water, and solar power ramp up and as coal use ramps down, as biogas replaces coal as the main energy source in the power plant, eventually almost no coal is needed. It would only be used in emergencies.

This is the way to convert to renewables in a practical manner. Gradual investment and conversion with no more coal plants built. Build out renewables and these conversions instead.


Economic issues are inherently political, which is why the old name for the field, "political economy", was actually more correct than the current usage.

As the energy sector is increasingly influenced by carbon policy and other environmental concerns, there will be significant winners and losers, and people and corporations will fight very hard to protect their individual interests. If they didn't, then they would be acting irrationally. This includes lobbying, information campaigns, influencing the course of legislation and regulation, challenging studies and reports, and the rest. These are all legal tactics, and within the rules of the game, as set by governments. The "environmental" establishment uses all of the same tactics, and is just as much a participant in the goings on, sordid as they sometimes become, as anyone else. Regardless of the difference in "ultimate" goals and objectives between the players.

If you actually believe in democracy, then you have to accept that only when enough people are convinced of the need to take significant action on carbon emissions and energy security (etc.) will dramatic changes take place. It seems apparent that in North America (I am Canadian) the broad public is moving closer to the point where governments will have no choice but to make significant changes in the policy landscape in which the energy industry operates. But not yet.

For the time being, all of those pulverised coal plant proposals in the US make sense. They are cheaper than the alternatives, because no externalities are priced in. And, contrary to what you might think, those corporate executives are not taking enormous risks, because typically regulators are giving them long-term contracts with significant protection against future policy change. If future policy changes such that coal plant economics are undermined, it is the consumers that are subject to the regulators that will bear the brunt of the costs. These plants are NOT being built on a merchant, or at-risk basis. Most of the merchant power business collapsed with Enron, and the remaining players in the merchant power business are the survivors of the natural gas-fired electricity meltdown.

By all means people should be arguing that regulators and governments should be pricing in externalities when they are determining which contracts to sign. But until they do that, or until radically new technology is developed that competes with coal economics, the pulverised coal juggernaut will continue to roll along.

Chad K

Everyone always assumes the reason to reduce pollutants from these plants is global warming. Years ago, before all the global warming talk... it was cancer, smog, lung disease, etc that was being used.

Sure, they can reduce the carbon footprint, but most of the things they truely measure [that matter] are the dangerous polutants that have no business being in our air. As someone new to this subject, I would like to know if these specific things are reduced and not just carbon dioxide.

Paul Dietz

As someone new to this subject, I would like to know if these specific things are reduced and not just carbon dioxide.

Recovering sulfur from syngas (as valuable elemental sulfur) can be done at high efficiency using off-the-shelf technology:



The soi-disant doctor writes:

as coal use ramps down, as biogas replaces coal as the main energy source in the power plant, eventually almost no coal is needed. It would only be used in emergencies.
I am happy to see him coming to this realization, though it would be a further improvement if the "coal" was stockpiled charcoal.

Matt Brakey

Your blog quotes Mike Morris, CEO of AEP. Right now, AEP is trying to build a coal gasification plant in Miggs county, Ohio. I have no objection to the technology and would encourage utilities to build such plants. AMP Ohio is in the process of building a plant in Ohio as well.

What I take exception to is AEP trying to push through a rate based cost recovery mechanism for this plant. This creates a nightmare scenario for Ohio rate payers who will be forced to pay market prices for lower cost, less environmentally friendly generation, and regulatory costs for more expensive, greener technology.

AEP can't have it both ways.


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Kit P

Of the 150 coal plants that were in planning when this tread was started, all but about ten are significantly delayed or canceled. Fortunately, I have an all electric-house and my electricity is 99.2% coal. My energy coats are stable.

If you heat with natural gas or live in an area where the major fuel for generation is natural gas, the only projects that can meet the demand fast enough is CCGT. Here we go again.

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Coal gasification has proven technology for capturing CO2 at a fraction of the cost required for coal combustion technologies. The United States is debating whether CO2 abatement should be required for all new and existing coal power plants.

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