“Imagining Coal Without Air Pollution” – Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2014

While many countries have been working together to reach global environmental goals—such as reducing emissions and increasing use of renewable energies—it often seems like China hasn’t gotten the memo. Due to a growing population, and thus a growing demand for energy, China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions. Over the last few months, many of China’s major cities have had issues with smog—a product of coal-burning power plants—and citizens have been forced to wear face masks.

The US faced similar problems with smog in the late 1960′s and 1970′s, which inspired the formation of the EPA and passed the Clean Air Act. Since then, US electricity utilities reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by over 80% and nitrogen oxides by over 75%, using lower-sulfur coal found in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Now that the government and utilities have successfully kept those emission levels down, they are tackling mercury and greenhouse gas emissions, which means new environmental regulations. As a result, many of the US’s coal-burning power plants will close, since upgrading the plants’ equipment isn’t profitable. Moreover, natural gas releases half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, and natural gas costs have plunged since 2009.

New regulations on mercury has the potential to reduce emissions by almost 90% and cause more power plants to shut their doors. The EPA is handling greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, by introducing regulations that will more or less disallow utilities to build new coal-burning power plants. The EPA is set to propose new standards for existing power plants and guidelines on greenhouse gas emission levels.

Scientists are trying to find a way to prevent carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, as well as studying the method of cleaning coal prior to combustion. Both have proved costly, though countries with more access to coal and less to natural gas—like China, Pakistan, Indonesia and Australia—have expressed interest in these technologies.

Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan

March 21, 2014

Phinix LLC

Copyright 2013. All rights Reserved by Phinix, LLC.

www.phinix.net    skdas@phinix.net

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2 thoughts on ““Imagining Coal Without Air Pollution” – Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2014

  1. Nice piece Subodh. A future of coal power without pollution is a beautiful dream. And it’s coming true before our eyes. Not only do we have the technology to cost-effectively remove sulfur and heavy metals, but plants are going up with Carbon Capture and Storage which satisfy the new EPA CO₂ emissions requirements.

    The furthest along is a 582 MW coal power plant under construction in Mississippi which will use the CO₂ for enhanced oil recovery. This will use an Integrated Gassification Combined Cycle (IGCC) flow sheet and will capture 65% of emissions. Other plants are in advanced planning stages in Texas and California, and one other under construction in Canada. There’s a great summary of technologies, costs, and a database of projects at: https://sequestration.mit.edu/ .

    Finally, coal only emits twice the CO₂e of natural gas when you don’t consider gas leaks. A 2013 EPA report shows an industry average around 1.65% source leakage in 2011, which is down from 2.4% and higher as recently as 2009. With 25x the 100-year GWP of CO₂, 2% leakage is the theoretical break-even at equal efficiencies, i.e. with 2% leakage the 100-year CO₂e emissions of coal and gas energy production are the same — for equally-efficient combustion. With efficient gas turbines and many combined heat & power (CHP) installations, emissions/kWh are lower, so natural gas is indeed the cleaner fuel — but not by 50%.

    A great summary of the 2013 EPA gas leakage report is at: http://static.berkeleyearth.org/memos/epa-report-reveals-lower-methane-leakage-from-natural-gas.pdf

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