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German test plant may lead to clean coal power: German plant cuts emissions, with eye to renewables

Oct 6, 2008 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Laurie Goering Chicago Tribune

In this old industrial town in the heart of the former East Germany, researchers have launched what could be a revolution for a much-maligned fuel: the world's first nearly emission-free coal-fired power plant.

Coal-burning plants are the world's biggest producers of electricity. But as climate change worries mount, the billions of tons of greenhouse gases they emit each year have put in doubt coal's future as a cheap, home-grown source of electricity.

The United States, through the FutureGen project, had hoped to help change that by developing the world's first full-scale nearly emission-free coal plant in Mattoon, Ill. But with the billion-dollar project being put on hold for financial reasons, a small pilot plant in Spremberg is now leading the global push to make coal a clean fuel.

Built alongside a traditional power plant, the German test plant burns dirty brown coal with pure oxygen rather than air to produce nearly pure carbon dioxide emissions. Those emissions are then condensed, liquefied and pumped into long-term storage, eventually in old gas fields or salt aquifers several miles below the Earth's surface.

If the technology proves itself in trials over the next three years, it could turn coal into a relatively clean fuel, dramatically reducing the world's energy worries and its climate concerns. That would give coal-rich nations such as the United States, China, India and Russia the ability to produce abundant electricity without contributing significantly to climate change.

"We don't think there is one silver bullet. But this is the biggest tool we have to combat climate change," said Lars Stromberg, vice president for research and development for Vattenfall, the Swedish power company that operates the new 30-megawatt plant.

Electricity from such "carbon capture and storage" plants would initially be more expensive than as current coal power. But if a system of carbon emission caps and trading credits is developed worldwide in the coming years, as most experts expect, the cost of producing electricity with the new technology would soon be on a par with old-style electrical production, researchers predict.

In a world where 80 percent of energy still comes from fossil fuels and where renewable energy sources are still being ramped up, carbon-capture plants could serve as a technological bridge that cuts global greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20 percent. It could help the United States achieve greater energy independence and enable cleaner development in nations such as China and India, which plan to build hundreds of new coal-fired power plants in coming years, experts say.

"Without [carbon capture and storage], we are lost," said Brick Medak, an energy expert with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Berlin. "We don't believe it's a long-term solution. In 60 years we hope we will have an energy supply based on 100 percent renewables. But for the forthcoming 30 or 40 years, it's a bridging technology."

Worldwide, a number of trial carbon capture and storage plants, using a variety of technologies, are in the pipeline. Twelve are planned in Europe. The Spremberg plant, a privately funded effort, is the first coal burner to effectively begin capturing more than 95 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. The $100 million facility will at first store liquefied carbon dioxide on site and then transport it by truck 220 miles to a largely depleted gas field in northern Germany. Eventually Vattenfall officials hope to build a pipeline to carry the waste to below-ground storage.

The company, which operates coal-burning plants around Germany, decided to build the test plant at its own expense to hold onto its market and meet a self-set commitment to reduce its emissions by half by 2030. Germany, like a growing number of countries, has banned construction of new traditional coal-fired power plants to hold the line on ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions.

With scientists warning that large-scale cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are quickly needed as growth in countries such as China is pushing emissions dramatically higher, "somebody needed to take the initiative and not just talk," Stromberg said. "If we wait for research centers and government money, it'll be too late. We have to do research at this scale now or we'll never get to the big plants."

The gleaming new steel pilot plant, built near one of the massive cooling towers of Vattenfall's larger power plant, burns brown coal, a fuel that Germany--like the United States--has in abundance.

Each year, the traditional plant, a decade-old, 1,700-megawatt burner that also uses brown coal, emits 10 million tons of carbon dioxide, which puts it among the cleaner of the world's coal-fired power plants. A similar-size plant using the new technology--something the company hopes to build by 2020--would produce less than 5 percent of that, Vattenfall officials say.

Pumping in pure oxygen to burn the fuel and processing the emissions consumes about 14 percent of the test plant's generating capacity, officials acknowledge. And road transport costs for the carbon dioxide will further substantially reduce the technology's efficiency.

But if a pipeline could be built, the technology would be about a third more efficient than the world average for coal plants, said Damian Mueller, a spokesman for Vattenfall.

Questions remain over how safely and effectively liquefied carbon dioxide can be pumped into long-term storage underground, though early tests in Norway suggest the technology may work. And although regulatory frameworks for such projects are still being developed, the European Union's is due out by the end of the year, and Germany's shortly afterward, Medak said.

Some of Germany's environmental groups have sharply criticized the test plant, arguing that coal burning in any form should be discouraged as part of a worldwide effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Research funding, they say, should go instead to renewable power sources such as wind and solar.

But the World Wide Fund for Nature has given carbon capture and storage efforts its cautious backing, arguing that plans by China and India to build legions of new coal-fired power plants without such technology is the bigger environmental threat. Retrofitting such plants at a later stage to the new technology is financially impractical, they say.

"We don't believe in coal. We believe in renewables," Medak said. "But the situation is as it is. We think there's no other way."

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Updated: 2016/06/30

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