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Powerful Living


The drive to make coal more environmentally friendly Innovation could put coal use in a whole new light


By Paul Wesslund S


ince coal generated more than half the nation’s electricity as recently as 10 years ago, that share has fallen to one-third as


of last year. The decline of coal genera- tion will continue as new environmental rules are set in place and prices for natu- ral gas remain relatively low. So it’s curtains for coal, right? Not so


fast. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan still calls for more than one-fi fth of our electricity to come from coal by its 2030 target date. Even President Obama’s Energy Secretary sees a future for coal. “We are talking about a progressively lower-carbon future, but we have not abandoned coal as part of that future,” Secretary Ernest Moniz says. A role for coal is important, says


- Logan Pleasant, Lake Region Electric Cooperative director of engineering and operations





Daniel Walsh, senior program manager for generation, environment and carbon at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). Citing the huge coal supply in the U.S., Walsh sees coal as a key to energy security. Achieving that brighter future for coal could depend on huge improve- ments to a technology called carbon capture. Carbon capture seeks to solve a top environmental complaint about coal, which is that burning it releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that has been linked to climate change. Grabbing the carbon dioxide before it leaves the power plant would keep it out of the atmosphere. Carbon capture is still a developing technology, with 15 test plants in the world and seven more coming online by 2017, according to an inter- national industry group. One of the main holdups to development is that the technology is expensive to build and operate. Really expensive. Running carbon capture equipment at a power plant uses about one- third of the electricity produced by that power plant. As daunting and ineffi cient as that sounds, Moniz cites $6 billion spent on carbon capture research by the Department of Energy as proof of his optimism. NRECA’s Walsh believes in the power of researchers to make carbon capture costs competitive.


One reason for this outlook comes from a 35-year trend of fi nding clean- er and more effi cient ways to burn coal. Since 1970, electric utilities in the U.S. have reduced pollution regulated by the federal Clean Air Act by more than 60 percent. Techniques have ranged from washing coal with water, to burning it at lower temperatures to release less harmful chemicals, to large and expensive fl ue gas desulfurization equipment, also called scrubbers. Over the decades, those technologies improved, says Kirk Johnson,


6 Source: NRECA


NRECA senior vice president for government relations. He says those improvements can be a model for carbon capture. “We didn’t start out with scrubbers that


achieved better-than 90 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide removal, but we got there,” Johnson says.


Electric co-ops launched a drive to that suc- cess with the April groundbreaking for the Integrated Test Center in Wyoming. Operation is scheduled for summer 2017. The state of Wyoming is funding $15 million, which will be built at the site of the existing Dry Fork Station, a coal plant owned by Basin Electric Cooperative, a regional co-op based in North Dakota. Another $5 million of support will come from another regional co-op, Denver- based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and $1 million from NRECA. The test center aims to advance carbon cap-


ture research by focusing on a looming ques- tion about the technology—once you capture the carbon dioxide, what do you do with it? The center focus will be on a new area of carbon capture work that is even changing the name of the technology. For years the process has been referred to as CCS—for Carbon Capture and Storage (or


Sequestration). Geologists looked for underground formations where the carbon dioxide could be stored safely and permanently. An evolving ter- minology refers to CCU, for Carbon Capture and Utilization, or CCR, for Carbon Capture and Recycling. The idea is that one way to make carbon capture more cost-effective would be to fi nd commercial or other uses for the carbon dioxide that produce a better return on investment than burying it underground. Researchers at the test center will be able to use carbon dioxide from the Dry Fork Station to run tests. Among the fi rst researchers, the test center will host teams competing for part of $20 million in XPRIZEs on ways to use carbon dioxide (CO2) at power plants. The XPRIZE Foundation sup- ports innovation in several areas, and its recent call for entries reads, “Do you have what it takes to turn CO2 emissions into valuable products?” There’s reason to believe the challenge might succeed at the test center,


says NRECA Communications Manager John Pulley. He describes the plans as bringing researchers in to develop their ideas in the “real-world” setting of a power plant. “Once you have a facility like this in place that will allow people to test their great ideas, the sky’s the limit,” he says.


Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profi t electric cooperatives.


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