Working to make better use of an abundant resource
Despite the recent green energy revolution and the explosion of natural gas drilling rigs across the American landscape, our nation’s primary fuel for producing electricity is coal—as it has been for more than a century.
Electricity in the United States generated by coal fell from 42 percent in 2011 to 37.5 percent in 2012, largely because of low natural gas prices, the retirement of older coal-fired power plants due to new emissions regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and uncertainty about further regulations in the future.
But coal is far from dead. Electricity from coal is predicted to rise about 3 percent this year while the contribution from natural gas will drop from 30.5 percent to 27.3 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Short-Term Energy Outlook for 2013. And natural gas prices are predicted to rise this year due to higher demand and a slowdown in production.
“Coal still has a future as a source of electricity,” says Geoff Oldfather, Arizona’s Generation and Transmission Cooperatives marketing and public relations manager. “Whether you are for or against the use of coal to generate electricity, the fact is that the United States remains home to the largest reserves of coal in the world. That’s why electric cooperatives like Arizona’s G&Ts are fully behind efforts to explore and test clean-coal technologies.”
One driver in the effort is EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, designed to significantly curb emissions of hazardous air pollutants, such as mercury and arsenic, from coal- and oil-fired electric generating units 25 megawatts or larger by 2016. Some coal-fired generating units will be shut down, rather than retrofitted, because the needed changes would be too expensive to implement.
Arizona Pioneers New Technology
America’s electric cooperatives and the trade association that represents them, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, are exploring new approaches to burn coal more cleanly.
NRECA’s Cooperative Research Network recently completed a demonstration of an innovative multi-pollutant control system that shows promise for helping coal-fired power plants meet stringent emissions standards advanced by EPA. Even better, the technologies tested do so at a fraction of the cost of traditional measures.
The demonstration—conducted in July 2012 at a power plant owned and operated by Arizona Electric Power Cooperative, based in Benson, Arizona—was sponsored by CRN, and a coalition of 10 generation and transmission cooperatives and other industry organizations.
Results showed that combining mercury controls with trona—a naturally occurring mineral similar to baking soda—significantly reduced emissions. In addition, the tested technologies cut the cost of meeting new environmental rules by a factor of five to 10.
“Results for these full-scale power plants were very encouraging,” says John Hewa Jr., NRECA vice president of engineering, research and technical services. “But they were based on limited-duration runs. To verify long-term performance, the results need to be confirmed with extended trials.”
“Arizona’s G&Ts support the multi-pollutant control technologies being studied by CRN,” says Oldfather. “They can show us how to best use one of our most abundant natural resources—coal—and keep rates low for our members.”
Alaska Brings Coal Back
In Alaska, coal continues to make strides. The nation’s last frontier has several coal-fired power plants split between military bases and utilities.
“The benefits of coal as a fuel source is the relatively stable price as compared to the volatility of oil prices,” says Golden Valley Electric Association Power Supply Vice President Lynn Thompson. “While oil prices continue to climb rapidly, coal prices have remained relatively stable.”
The Healy Clean Coal Project was built in the 1990s to test a new, cleaner burning combustion process. The plant went through testing and demonstration, then was mothballed due to disagreements between the state of Alaska and GVEA.
Ten years later, an agreement is in place for GVEA to purchase the plant from the state. GVEA also reached an agreement with EPA to add emission control devices to reduce emissions from the plant.
However, Thompson says there are challenges facing a successful startup such as restarting a plant that has been dormant for 10 years, retrofitting new environmental controls and operating the plant to meet the economic objectives.
According to Thompson, current and future proposed regulations will make it more difficult for coal plants to continue operation, which could cause fluctuation in energy costs for members.
“Improvements in technology will help,” Thompson says, “but they are not keeping pace with changes in regulations.”
Northwest Says No Coal
Coal is thriving in many parts of the country, but hydropower is still king in the Northwest and it does not look like that will change any time soon.
“If you look at public power in Idaho, coal is arguably nonexistent unless one of my members is buying power outside of Bonneville Power Administration to meet need,” says Will Hart, executive director for Idaho Consumer-Owned Utilities Association.
“We rely on the benefits of the federal hydro-system,” Hart says, adding that 96 percent of the state’s energy comes from hydro. “It’s clean, it’s cheap.”
While coal is used by some investor-owned utilities, there are no coal plants in Idaho.
According to Hart, there was a plan to build a coal plant in Idaho more than 10 years ago, but bad public response brought the project to a halt.
Oregon and Washington each have a coal-fired plant, the Boardman Coal Plant in Boardman, Oregon, and the Centralia Plant in Centralia, Washington. However, due environmental regulation, these plants are scheduled to close by 2020 and 2025, respectively.
“The state doesn’t want coal,” says Ted Case, executive director at the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
That’s not to say coal has no future in the Northwest. As a domestic resource, it could still be an option.
“It’s a viable resource from an engineering perspective, if it can be cleaned up to be less harmful to the environment,” says PNGC Power CEO John Prescott.
So does clean coal actually exist?
“Depends who’s defining clean,” says Prescott.
While many solutions in the works, such as removing the carbon from coal before it is burned and even the gasification of coal—the process of producing coal gas, similar to natural gas—those processes are still on the drawing board and are not ready to be implemented on the necessary scale.
At least for now, “existing regulations and taxes and potential taxes make coal untenable to include in a future energy portfolio plan,” says Prescott.