January 22, 2009

Cleanish Coal?
Now, don't anybody throw shoes at me just because I'm talking about coal. It's still bad and we should stop using it. That said, the Illinois legislature just approved a new coal-fired power plant with some interesting implications. True, Sean Casten at Grist isn't happy. The idea that his home state of Illinois, having just bequeathed us The. Best. President. Ever, is now gifting us another coal plant has prompted no small amount of teeth-gnashing. But despite his clenched teeth, he did take a moment to observe the that the state law under which the plant will be built will require the capture and sequestration of at least 50% of the plant's carbon emissions.

No, I'm not jumping for joy at the news. But it's worth pointing out that this will be an IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) coal plant, which means it turns the coal into gas before burning it. IGCC lets you take out most of coal's impurities (such as mercury and sulfur dioxide) and is the leading technology for so-called "carbon capture-ready" coal plants. There are only a few such plants currently in existence because - wait for it - they're really really expensive to build - up to triple the cost of conventional coal plants. Sorta takes the "cheap" out of what's billed as a cheap and abundant power source.

But back to the Illinois plant. Thanks to Casten's math and Kevin Drum's insights, most of the blog work is already done. Casten calculated that once you include rate increases, the new plant - which won't come online until 2014 - will generate power at about 20 cents/kWh. For the sake of comparison, I can buy baseload wind power today through a local power co-operative here in Philadelphia at an "unsubsidized" cost of 16.2 cents/kWh. Better not tell the Illinois legislature.

Moreover, Casten did even more math and determined that Illinois ratepayers are being charged about $400 per ton of carbon. Which is, as Kevin Drum points out, a market price for carbon that environmentalists would kill for and about 25 times the market price for carbon on the European carbon exchange (the only fully functioning carbon market in the world right now).

But here's where things get interesting. The EPA is supposed to develop carbon emissions standards for coal plants. The Supreme Court and the EPA's own Environment Appeals Board said so. And now we know that capturing 50% (and possibly as much as 60%) of carbon emissions from coal plants can be done without much effort. Even the Illinois legislature's plan calls for capturing 90% of carbon emissions for any plants coming on line after 2017. The question will be - is 50% going to be the standard for the EPA? Why not shoot for that 90% target right away? Lisa? Any thoughts?

And finally, to temper your own gnashing of teeth, the Sierra Club observes on its terrific coal-fired power plant tracking page (ah, the Internets) that this law really just kicks off a cost study, which could take up to a year to complete. And even then, the legislature could vote not to proceed (not to mention the fact that Blago's replacement may not be quite so coal friendly). In the interim, any number of cheaper renewable projects could come up for consideration with a lower cost and a quicker turnaround.

All in all, I actually see in this a small victory. To get a coal plant off the ground, Illinois:
  • set a short window for coal-fired power that incorporates anything less than 90% emissions capture
  • set a market price of at least $400 per ton of carbon emissions
  • could stop this plant in its tracks well before construction starts.
Not exactly a "shovel ready" project. I'm not a betting man (as far as you all know) but I wouldn't put money on this thing ever making it off the drawing board.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. (I like your writing style, too.) I'm actually associated with Sean Casten's company, Recycled Energy Development. The key point in all of this is there is a much less expensive ways of making coal cleaner than the Taylorville project -- namely, use is more efficiently. Instead of burning tons of carbon and then storing it underground at a hefty fee, how about not burning it at all?

That's what Recycled Energy Development does -- taking manufacturers' waste heat and converting it into clean power and steam. EPA and DOE estimates say the U.S. could cut greenhouse emissions by 20% with energy recycling -- which is as much as if we removed every passenger vehicle from the road. The main reason more of this isn't happening is bad regulations that protect monopoly utilities from more efficient competitors.

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