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Coal plants built in face of green-energy movement
Energy Department spokesman John Grasser acknowledged that the new plants represent a missed chance to rein in carbon emissions, but said more opportunities would arise as electricity consumption increases.
Analysts say the widespread application of carbon-neutralizing technologies for coal plants remains at least 15 years away.
“This is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow,” Mr. Grasser said. “You have to do the required research and development and take steps along the way.”
Producing clean coal power appears straightforward: Separate the carbon dioxide before it goes up the smokestack, then store it underground in geological formations.
Experimental trials have been successful, but putting the concept into commercial practice has been stymied by high costs and the difficulty of isolating carbon dioxide from other gases.
“We are pushing the envelope as far as what’s possible,” said Jon LaCour, manager for the 115-megawatt Wygen III coal plant, which came online in northeastern Wyoming this spring. “We have no way of capturing carbon.”
Inside the plant, a ton of coal per minute rumbles off conveyor belts from the nearby WyoDak mine.
Hulking steel pulverizers crush the fuel to the consistency of baby powder, fans blow it into a giant furnace and the coal goes up in flames that can top 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, producing steam to generate electricity.
Wygen is more efficient than earlier plants, burning about 20 percent less coal. Yet the process has changed little since Thomas Edison built the first plant in 1882 in New York.
Although dramatic advances have been made at the back end of coal plants — where Wygen’s operator, Black Hills Power, removes most of the nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and other acid-rain pollutants — efforts to curb greenhouse gases have lagged.
Black Hills spent $80 million on pollution controls for Wygen, bumping up its price tag to $247 million. Like most of the new fleet of plants, space was left at Wygen for the future installation of carbon-capture equipment.
As climate change emerged as a global concern in recent years, the coal industry at times appeared on the ropes.
Environmentalists trumpeted 100 plants dropped or delayed. Regulators imposed tighter emission limits for acid rain pollutants and reined in destructive mining practices, and the recession dampened consumer demand for power, prompting some utilities to scrap expansion plans.
But coal has not been eliminated.
“The reason coal burns in this country is not because anyone likes the smog. It’s the cost,” said Daniel Scott, a coal industry analyst with Dahlman Rose & Co. in New York.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
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