Industry Market Trends

Is Clean Coal Technology Working Yet?

Mar 03, 2009

Swedish utility Vattenfall has been running its carbon dioxide-sequestering technology in a real coal-fired power plant for almost six months. What does the pilot program tell us about the state of "clean coal" technology?

Coal production and coal consumption has been growing and will continue to grow. In 2007, global production of coal was 3.13 billion tons of oil equivalents, up from 3.03 in 2006, Plunkett Research says. Consumption was 3.17 billion tons in 2007, up from 3.04 the year prior.

Moreover, use of coal is continuing to grow sharply — particularly in China — despite the fact that it is heavily polluting. Pollution in turn will also increase unless so-called "clean coal" technologies are utilized, Plunkett Research adds.

However, many challenges to clean coal technology remain. Figuring out how to prevent carbon dioxide from releasing into the atmosphere has been cited as the major roadblock.

"There is no coal plant that captures the carbon dioxide and that's the major long-term pollutant," James Hansen, NASA's oft-cited expert on climate change, told CBS News last year.

The cleanest coal plant in North America, operated by Tampa Electric in Florida, only removes sulfur, nitrogen and soot — not carbon dioxide, CBS reports.

However, there may now be a solution to the carbon dioxide issue.

On Sept. 9, 2008, Swedish utility company Vattenfall, Europe's third-largest power company, inaugurated the world's first coal-fired power plant, at the Schwarze Pumpe plant premises in Germany, that connects carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in a full-chain working system. "The pilot unit is a milestone on the way to converting coal into electricity that is almost free of emissions," Vattenfall's CEO and president Lars Josefsson said in a statement. "It represents the first ever transition from lab to reality."

Tuomo Hatakka, chairman of Vattenfall Europe's managing board, added that "coal has a future — but not the CO2 emissions it produces. With our pilot unit we are demonstrating that coal and high-tech do not represent a contradiction."

After 10 years of testing, Vattenfall spent two and a half years and $100.5 million building the pilot plant next to the 1,600-megawatt Schwarze Pumpe power plant in north Germany. The test plant is expected to consume 12 megawatts of electricity, generate 30 megawatts of power and produce 9 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hour, Greentech Media reports. The plant will use the oxyfuel process to capture the carbon dioxide.

In this process, the fuel is combusted in a mixture of pure oxygen and recycled carbon dioxide instead of air, as by regular conventional combustion, Vattenfall explains. The flue gas will mainly consist of carbon dioxide and water vapor. Subsequent treatments will separate the water vapor and any errant dust or sulfur so that the flue gas will have an up to 98 percent carbon dioxide concentration.

Then, the temperature is lowered while the pressure is raised in order to liquefy the carbon dioxide. The liquefied CO2 will then be transported via pipelines and sequestered 9,842 feet underground. By spring 2009, Vattenfall hopes to have specially designed trucks that would transport the liquefied carbon dioxide 125 miles to a depleted gas field in the Altmark region.

Through this project, Vattenfall hopes to figure out the achievable levels of carbon-dioxide capture and the ability to scale this plant's dimensions to one of a commercial power plant. Commercial plants generate 250 to 350 megawatts of power — eight to 10 times more than the Schwarze Pumpe test plant. While Vattenfall works on the logistical aspects of commercializing this technology, it enlisted the help of McKinsey & Co. to do an economic feasibility study of CCS.

The McKinsey report, published last September, concluded that the extra cost of carbon capture would be $44 to $66 per metric ton of carbon dioxide by 2030 if 80 to 120 commercial-scale CCS projects were installed in Europe. These numbers would only be viable if all these projects go commercial by that time.

"The implication is that early attention must be given to the prerequisites for commercial roll-out beyond the first 10 to 15 projects — including cluster development, infrastructure networks, permits, industry preparations, and possible business models and commercial approaches to the next stage of development," McKinsey says.

The report also added that regulatory issues regarding storage liability, legality of storage and funding needed to support the demonstration project phase need to be resolved prior to a large-scale rollout.

Still, the company is optimistic about clean coal — pledging to work up to a full-scale commercial power plant that uses carbon sequestration technology within 12 years, Discovery Magazine reports. However, it acknowledges that this process is merely a bridge to renewable-energy technologies rather than a permanent solution.

"Sooner or later we have to find something else," Vattenfall's Staffan Görtz tells Discovery Magazine. "Using this technology will buy us time."

Resources

Energy & Utilities Trends

Plunkett Research

Clean Coal - Pipe Dream or Next Big Thing?

by Wyatt Andrews

CBS News, June 20, 2008

Vattenfall Inaugurates World's First Pilot for a Coal-Fired Power Plant with CO2 Capture

Vattenfall, Sept. 9, 2008

Vattenfall's Project on CCS

Vattenfall, October 2008

Can Clean Coal Actually Work? Time to Find Out

by Jocelyn Rice

Discovery Magazine, Jan. 15, 2009

Carbon Capture & Storage: Assessing the Economics

McKinsey & Co., Sept. 22, 2008

Vattenfall to Trap Carbon Emissions

by Ucilia Wang

Greentech Media, Sept. 5, 2008