Lifeline for “Clean Coal”?

images This blog has covered the long history of technologies and approaches that would allow coal-fired power plants to keep operating while the carbon dioxide in flue gases can be captured and either used or stored in some manner. The most promising of these approaches applies only to new plants that gasify the coal (rather than burn it), allowing the CO2 to be captured in an efficient manner. When such plants are built close to oil fields that can beneficially use CO2 injection as a tertiary recovery method the economics of the operation are substantially improved. The only problem is that such plants, as exemplified by the Kemper plant in Missouri, are enormously expensive (See my Jan. 2nd, 2016 post) and also have a high “parasitic” load of energy charges related to carbon dioxide recovery, that raise their operating cost substantially.

Here we segue to an interesting situation that involves an unlikely alliance, including the Kemper plant, an old “Synthetic Natural Gas” from coal plant, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitcamp from North Dakota, some Texas senators and Donald Trump. There is a current Federal tax credit of $10/ton of carbon for CO2 captured and reused for oil recovery. One of the recipients is Dakota Gasification Company, supported by DOE and built in 1984 to make synthetic natural gas from coal and now capturing CO2 (produced as a pure stream) and selling it for tertiary oil recovery.  Another project built partly with DOE financing (like Kemper) by NRG Energy Company in the Houston area at a time when crude oil was $ 100 per barrel (see my Sept. 8, 2014 post) uses amine scrubbing to capture a portion of the CO2 from a coal-fired power plant and sells it via pipeline to a depleted oil field, presumably receiving the $ 10/ton tax credit.  The owner of the Kemper plant, Senator Heitcamp,  and other congress members are now lobbying for raising the tax credit to $ 35/ton for the first 12 years of plant operation.

So now we perhaps get a glimmer about Donald Trump’s Clean Coal fixation. While I doubt that he understands the technology behind the approach, nor the economics, nor the fact that an enormous amount of Federal money has partly financed (as first-of-a kind projects) and continues to support all three of these plants with tax credits, he can say that there is a way for coal to be used and captured since real plants are doing that. There are, however, important questions whether real companies will build more plants like Kemper, which overran its initial buget by 200 percent. Even if higher tax credits are established, the investment for these plants will be prohibitively higher than for natural gas-fired power plants. Even if Trump’s DOE under new management is willing to grant massive subsidies to new coal-fired plants using gasification instead of combustion of coal, it seems doubtful that Congress – now much more conservative and negative to government subsidies- will subsidize such boondoggles (which would no longer be first-of-a kind plants worthy of government support). However, stay tuned!


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