Dirty business of coal could get makeover

Dirty business of coal could get makeover

State regulators on Tuesday signed off on plans to build one of the nation’s first plants that would turn dirty coal into cleaner fuel, generating electricity while dramatically reducing smog and mercury pollution.

If built amid cornfields outside Taylorville, about 200 miles southwest of Chicago, the 630-megawatt plant would provide a lucrative boost to the state’s beleaguered coal industry. It also would showcase coal gasification, an emerging way to generate electricity with fewer environmental drawbacks than conventional power plants.

“The future of clean air in Illinois starts now,” said Doug Scott, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which approved the plan.

Instead of burning coal to generate electricity, the Taylorville plant would superheat the black, energy-rich rock under pressure, creating gases to drive massive turbines.

Most of the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury pollution would be removed before the exhaust blows out of the smokestacks.

But the developers face opposition from environmentalists who want binding commitments rather than vague promises to curb millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide churned out by the plant.

Two small gasification plants are operating in the United States, one in Indiana and the other in Florida. Until now utilities have largely shunned the technology because of higher costs, though some increasingly see it as a more effective way for the nation to rely on an abundant, domestic fuel.

The economic and environmental benefits of building a large-scale gasification plant could be huge. The Taylorville plant would produce enough power to serve at least 472,500 homes.

But despite enthusiastic support from Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration, coal companies, labor unions and some environmental groups, the Taylorville project’s future remains uncertain.

The developers, Tenaska Inc. and MDL Holding Co., said plans to open the plant by 2012 hinge on the passage of legislation recently introduced in Springfield that would require ComEd and other utilities to buy electricity from the plant. The bill would lock utilities into long-term contracts intended to cut construction and generating costs.

The lack of a binding commitment from the plant’s developers on cutting carbon dioxide emissions concerns environmentalists because coal gasification plants are designed to be more adaptable to capturing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for heating up the planet. But for now the developers will not be required to install the equipment.

Omitting limits on carbon dioxide emissions runs counter to Blagojevich’s pledge to reduce the state’s production of greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020 and 60 percent by 2060. Most experts think any solution will require cleaner power plants and cars.

“We’re all ears if they are willing to talk about how this plant will fit into a carbon-constrained world,” said Bruce Nilles, an attorney who runs the Sierra Club’s Midwest Clean Air Campaign. “As it stands now, the emissions would equal the global warming pollution from 500,000 cars every year.”

The group has challenged most of the new, conventional coal-fired power plants proposed around the region, including five in Illinois. But municipal utilities in Springfield and Kansas City avoided costly and time-consuming permitting battles by agreeing to offset greenhouse-gas emissions with wind power and more aggressive energy-efficiency programs.

No state or federal regulations limit carbon dioxide emissions, though there are widespread expectations that Congress will enact some sort of trading system to reduce greenhouse gases. That could make coal gasification a more attractive option.

Other environmental groups are more sanguine about the Taylorville project. Noting that the United States already relies on coal for half of its electric-generating needs, they’ve concluded that wind, solar and other sources of renewable power cannot completely satisfy the nation’s thirst for more electricity.

“There is no solution to the nation’s air pollution problems unless we clean up coal,” said John Thompson, director of the coal-transition project for the Clean Air Task Force. “The only way to do that is with new technology.”

It would take a year, Thompson said, for the Taylorville plant to emit the amount of lung-damaging sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide gushed out in just two weeks by aging coal plants in the Chicago area. Emissions of toxic mercury, which drops from the air to contaminate lakes and streams, would be reduced by 95 percent.

By relying on cleaner methods, the project would use nearly 1.5 million tons of Illinois coal every year. Most of the state’s utilities have switched to low-sulfur Western coal, which along with automation has been devastating to the economy in many southern Illinois communities.

“This is our future,” said Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association.

For all of its benefits, the new-style power plant still would act like a conventional plant when it comes to carbon dioxide. And while it might be easier to capture those emissions, there are lingering questions about what to do with the gases.

One of the leading ideas is to pump the carbon dioxide into brine-soaked sandstone 6,000 to 10,000 feet underground, where it would be kept from bubbling back to the surface by shallower layers of non-porous shale. Known as sequestration, the process already is used to store natural gas in Illinois and other states.

Two other Illinois towns, Tuscola and Mattoon, are in the running for a gasification plant funded by energy companies and the U.S. Energy Department that would include sequestration.

Much of the region is laced with layers of sandstone that could be suitable for storing carbon dioxide, but to date there have been no studies focusing on the Taylorville site.

The developers, meanwhile, have largely been concentrating on lining up financing for their project. They want state lawmakers to make utilities sign long-term contracts to buy at least 5 percent of their electricity from gasification plants, which could drive down costs.

The bill joins a separate proposal that would require 10 percent of the state’s electricity to come from wind and other renewable sources by 2015.

ComEd hasn’t taken a position on the gasification bill, but it’s unclear if the measure will pass muster with the General Assembly, which is wrangling in an overtime session over the state budget and rate relief for utility customers.

“We could see a lot happen,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a non-profit group that represents customers and helped draft the bill. “Or we could see nothing at all.”

Information from: www.chicagotribune.com

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