Clean Coal: Here Now! Here’s an idea for the stimulus program that solves our most pressing problems in one stroke: Take the billions of dollars slated for the Futuregen “clean coal” research and spend them instead on converting our existing coal power plants to burn clean, renewable biomass. We already have 20 biomass power plants that were converted during the 1980s energy crisis. A recent government report shows that they are still running just fine and with reduced fuel and maintenance costs. Why spend money on a 10 year program to develop a technology that most scientists agree will never be economical when we can use proven technology to clean up our coal power plants NOW? Fast-growing elephant grass and giant reeds grow without water or fertilization on marginal land unsuitable for food crops. Harvesting machines chop the stalks into small pieces, leaving the roots intact to regrow in only six months. With minimal processing the biomass chips can be burned just like coal. The big difference is that the biomass produces less smog and has no mercury or sulphur, and is carbon neutral! All of the expensive pollution control equipment needed to clean up coal is unnecessary. Many coal plants today are long overdue for installing costly ($300 million!) scrubbers to control mercury. A biomass conversion makes this unnecessary. Instead of blasting the tops off mountains and shipping the coal long distances, biomass can be grown locally, right near the plant, and tended by local workers doing clean farm labor. Recycled yard clippings and wood waste from the area can also be used. Burning waste gives a double bonus as it would otherwise rot and contribute to global warming. Fast-growing biomass crops are carbon neutral. The carbon they store in their roots can even make them carbon negative. Coal causes global warming because when it burns it releases carbon that was sequestered by nature over hundreds of millions of years. The bacteria that broke down the ancient plants to make coal introduced the sulphur and mercury that makes coal so damaging. Coal was originally the cheapest of fuels but the environmental and health problems it causes have made it necessary to add more and more expensive pollution control equipment. The final nail in coal’s coffin is the CO2 that is causing global warming. Removing that will take another ten years of research and then will almost double the cost of coal power. We don’t have ten years! The polar ice caps are rapidly collapsing as we speak. We can convert existing coal plants to biofuel now for a fraction of the cost of Futuregen. It will create good jobs and put us on a sustainable path to energy independence. The money saved on healthcare costs will be a bonus and our air will finally be clean. In time, it will be safe to eat fish again. As the prospect of cleaning up the pollution of coal power plants becomes real, the power utilities have suddenly rediscovered biofuel. Georgia Power is planning to convert an existing 96MW coal plant in Albany Georgia to biomass power. The fuel cost compared to coal is expected to be roughly 30 percent less per year and maintenance costs are expected to be about 13 percent less. FirstEnergy is converting a 312 MW plant to biofuel and will thus save the $330 million cost of adding scrubbers to remove mercury. Ontario Power Generation is considering a similar move. Several new companies are planning to produce direct coal replacements called E-coal or BioCoal, which can be sold and shipped just like coal. By heating biomass without oxygen available, the biomass is torrefied to produce black pellets that burn exactly like coal (but without the pollutants!). Existing coal power plants can just order trainloads of E-Coal and substitute it directly for their normal coal supply without modifications. Powerful coal interests don’t like this idea at all. Can the Obama administration stand up to them and act in the people’s interest? We will soon find out.
Georgia power: http://www.biomassmagazine.com/article.jsp?article_id=2466
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Thomas R Blakeslee's books have been published in nine different languages. After serving for three years in the U.S. Navy, he earned a degree from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California in 1962. After working for IT&T in (more...