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