Monday, December 15, 2008


As the economy worsens, there are signs that political leaders and Americans generally are taking a more positive attitude toward coal. Abundant and cheaper than other fuels, coal is America’s energy mainstay, a domestic resource providing 52% of the nation’s electricity and 45% of Virginia’s power.

Some prominent environmentalists see no future for coal in a clean energy economy. Since coal accounts for about one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, they advocate halting the use of coal in this country within ten years and stopping the construction of new coal plants now. Abandoning coal would be folly, since we cannot expect to meet the massive and varied energy needs of American consumers without it.

The financial crisis makes action on clean coal more urgent than ever. If we want to strengthen the U.S. economic competitiveness, generating electricity from coal in an environmentally acceptable manner is one important way to do it.

There is one central reality underlying our nation’s energy situation and we must not lose sight of it; No amount of effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to an acceptable level will succeed unless we end up with a practical way to capture carbon dioxide at coal plants and store the emissions deep underground. That is true for the United States and it is true for other countries like China, Russia and India that rely upon coal to drive their economies.

Coal’s importance globally offers a unique opportunity. Given the success of clean-coal technology in reducing sulfur dioxide-down more than 35% since 1990- the obvious answer to the greenhouse problem is to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture-and-storage.

New technologies now on the horizon promise to make that possible. Pilot tests of carbon capture-and-storage are under way in Germany, Australia, and the United States. One approach currently being tested at a large coal plant in Indiana is drawing a lot of attention. Flue gas emitted from the plant’s boiler is cooled to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Then it is sent to two towers that discharge ammonium bicarbonate slurry onto the gas, which absorbs the carbon dioxide. The solution is pumped to a regeneration system, where the liquid is heated and absorption process is reversed, leaving pure carbon dioxide emissions.

The goal is to capture 90% of the carbon dioxide, then pipe it to a suitable site for injection into a deep geological formation such as a saline cavern or a depleted oil well. Injecting carbon dioxide underground is already a common practice in the oil industry, where companies use carbon dioxide injection, in tertiary recovery, to increase the rate of oil and gas production and reservoir recovery.

The biggest hurdle is economic. Moving from small scale pilot projects to industrial scale will require coming up with ways to reduce the cost of carbon capture-and-storage. Currently 30% of a coal plant’s electricity goes for this process. This requires burning more coal, which drives up utility costs. It is likely that as utilities begin to adopt carbon capture-and-storage, the cost will drop.

Now is the time for large-scale demonstrations of carbon storage, which are expected to take a decade or more to implement. Underground storage promises to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions significantly. Moreover, the technology could be made available around the world; Thereby leveraging America’s ingenuity.

Simply put, the effort to shut down coal plants and prevent new plants from being built is shortsighted. The idea of imposing a ceiling on carbon emissions before the technology for carbon capture-and-storage becomes available makes no sense at all. A carbon cap-and-trade system would force utilities to switch from coal high-priced natural gas, not a good idea, especially at a time when the nation’s economy is in turmoil.

Carbon capture-and-storage is a logical and sensible approach to global warming. The technology would allow the United States to make use of coal, our most abundant and reliable energy source. We need to stay the course and not let our attention be diverted from what is important: the need for a stable and secure supply of clean energy to meet our nation’s economic needs.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Coal will feed Virginia's power needs

Virginia will be using more coal for electricity production in the future than in the past for a number of reasons that become more evident and pressing every day.
We cannot go on squandering limited natural gas supplies on unlimited burning for electricity production when coal is so much more economical. Nor can we expect to see more nuclear power anytime soon, not if Congress continues to drag its feet in appropriating funds for loan guarantees to support construction of new nuclear plants. Plants are estimated to cost at least $7 billion each and won't be ready for commercial operation until 2016 at the earliest.
Nor can we deface our Virginian coastline and countryside with towering wind turbines on a massive scale, when coal plants require much less space and are so much more reliable. While coal provides more than 50 percent of the electricity used in Virginia and nationally, renewable sources such as solar and wind supply less than 2 percent and only supply peak power because of their unreliability.
Coal plants produce "base-load" electricity, the power that is always available around the clock, to keep traffic lights on and household appliances performing when the button is pushed. That is beyond the ability of solar and wind energy, which are available only when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing at the necessary velocity.
Advocates of renewable energy shudder at the very mention of coal, arguing that it can never be made acceptable from an environmental standpoint. But contrary to the assertions of environmentalists, coal is neither dead nor dying.
In Virginia and around the nation, power plants are using it more efficiently, boosting output while reducing emissions. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal plants are 33 percent less polluting than in 1980 when I began shipping coal to then Virginia Power.
Advances in clean-coal technology, particularly carbon capture and storage, are achievable.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded in a major study on the future of coal worldwide, "We believe that coal use will increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant."
We are going to build more coal plants, and there is no good reason not to begin soon. Dominion Power is gearing up to build a plant in Southwest Virginia that will use clean-coal technology to improve efficiency and reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen.
Even with conservation, Virginia is approximately 2,000 megawatts short of what it needs when demand for electricity peaks. The proposed plant will help close the supply gap.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is giving high priority to research aimed at developing a practical way to capture and store coal-plant emissions of carbon dioxide that are linked to climate change. The department's proposed budget for fiscal 2009 earmarks nearly $500 million for large-scale demonstrations of carbon storage, in which carbon dioxide is compressed into a liquid and injected deep underground into an oil field or salt cavern.
Carbon sequestration, as this process is called, has been used for many years to recover oil and gas that otherwise cannot be liberated.
In many respects, technology is the easy part. The overarching challenge is to make carbon capture and storage possible at minimum cost and without economic disruption. Achieving solutions on a large scale will take international cooperation involving all countries that use large amounts of coal.
The great advantage of coal is its availability and relatively low cost. With natural gas prices rising and more gas coming from overseas, the favorable economics of coal is its virtue.
Energy security, not independence, is another factor to consider.
The coal used for electricity generation in Virginia is produced in Central Appalachia. Some of it is still mined in Virginia, and all of it is free from the whims of foreign cartels or other interference. The United States has approximately 270 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves. America's thermal coal demand is approximately 1 billion tons per year. Even counting for growth, the reserve base can meet America's needs well into the next century.
Now, more than ever, we must do everything possible to keep Virginia's economy strong. It won't happen if we fail to provide enough base-load electricity for households, businesses and industries, or avoid power plant projects that take patience to complete. Only then can we have a stable economy, achieve environmental goals and improve our energy security.