Pennsylvania starting first plant to turn coal waste into diesel fuel

Pennsylvania starting first plant to turn coal waste into diesel fuel

PHILADELPHIA – Hundreds of millions of tons of waste coal are lying around the mines of Pennsylvania and nearby states, and that gets John Rich excited.

Rich is president of WMPI, in Gilberton, northeastern Pennsylvania, where he is setting up the first plant in the United States to turn waste coal into diesel fuel.

“This will help clean it up once and for all,” he said. “It’s a lot cheaper to pick it up from the ground than to dig it out.”

Rich plans to start producing diesel for the state of Pennsylvania and other clients within three years, one of a range of alternative fuel programs to displace some of the coal on which Pennsylvanians are dependent.

A renewable energy leader
Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest coal reserves in the nation, and coal meets about 60 percent of its energy needs. It is a leader among about 20 states that have passed renewable energy laws.

“If you are looking at a classic coal state trying to convert to renewables, there is no better example than Pennsylvania,” said Marchant Wentworth of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Under Pennsylvania’s 2004 Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, power plants will be required to generate 18 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

The state government this year doubled to 20 percent the amount of electricity it buys from renewable sources, making Pennsylvania’s public sector the largest buyer of green electricity among U.S. states.

Rotting garbage
In a bid to capture the energy released by rotting garbage, the state now has 24 landfill methane projects, in which gas that was previously burned off is now purified and then piped to consumers or used to fire power stations.

The state is also the second-largest producer of wind energy among Eastern states, attracting Spanish wind energy company Gamesa Corp. to set up manufacturing plants in Pennsylvania.

Officials are also in talks with a leading German solar power company about setting up in the state, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty said.

By 2021, utilities will be required to boost their output of power derived from the sun to 700 megawatts, only 0.5 percent of the state’s total energy needs, but the second-highest level in the U.S. To help utilities meet their goals, they will be allowed to take into account energy-conservation measures ”” known as “negawatts” ”” that their customers have implemented.

In an effort to lessen drivers’ dependence on imported petroleum, Gov. Edward Rendell has proposed an initiative that would require production of 900 million gallons a year of alternative fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol within 10 years.

That is equivalent to the amount of petroleum expected to be imported to the state annually from the Persian Gulf by that time.

But some environmentalists worry that, like other U.S. states, the focus is more on the politically popular effort to reduce reliance on foreign oil rather than on clean energy that will reduce emissions of gases that cause global warming.

Of the planned 18 percent of electricity that is supposed to come from renewable sources by 2020, about a quarter is expected to come from waste coal and coal gasification, which are not renewable and which contribute to global warming.

Ministers from almost 190 governments will meet in Nairobi Monday through Nov. 17 for annual U.N. talks about ways to speed up a fight against global warming, including shifting away from fossil fuels.

Don’t use the microwave
But in its conservation efforts, the state cannot be faulted. Thermostats are turned down in state offices; workers are not allowed to use personal appliances such as microwaves; and the state has begun to replace its fleet of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles with fuel-efficient hybrid cars.

The result is that the government’s energy consumption fell by 6 percent in the first half of 2006 and is due to decline to 15 percent below late-2005 levels by year-end, McGinty said.

At the local level, the state provides financial assistance to public and private enterprises to set up clean-energy projects. Among 16 such awards announced in early October were $350,000 to a school district for a biomass-fired boiler heating system; $150,000 to a water company to install backup wind and solar power generators; and $700,000 to a fund that supplies photovoltaic systems for solar-power generation.

Through such measures, Pennsylvania is distinguishing itself from many other states that are traditionally dependent on coal, said Elizabeth Martin-Perera of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“They are working hard to attract renewable-energy businesses. They have gone further than most of the major coal states,” she said.

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