Is clean coal the future of power generation?

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Is clean coal the future of power generation?

We’ve all become pretty used to delays in efforts to make clean coal technology a reality. We’ve been waiting a decade for FutureGen, the model project that would prove its mettle in the market. And now we’re waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency’s first national carbon pollution limits, which could make clean coal technology a necessary addition for all new coal-powered plants. These delays actually shed a little light on the various and sundry views surrounding the seeming oxymoron of “clean coal” – and that could be a helpful fact for utilities who may be under fire for their use of coal.

FutureGen 2.0 is the as yet unconstructed flagship for clean coal, jointly funded by the Department of Energy and private sector partners. Originally proposed under the Bush administration, shelved by the DOE due to rising costs, and resuscitated under the Obama administration, the project centers on retrofitting an Illinois power plant with the capability to capture carbon dioxide emissions and store them safely underground.

When coal is burned in this scenario, the carbon dioxide concentrates into a stream that can be pumped away from the facility and down into the earth, far below the level of drinking water, below even the levels from which natural gas is often extracted. Other pollutants are drastically reduced.

The FutureGen retrofit construction is finally supposed to begin this year, but funding needs, among other issues, are still setting it back. Costs are high, and they’ve risen over the years.

Two other plants using different varieties of carbon capture and sequestration technology (one owned by Southern Company and one by Canadian utility SaskPower) may go on line before FutureGen does.

In the meantime, EPA is waiting to close the public comment period for the re-proposed national carbon pollution limits for new coal and natural gas power plants. As a recent congressional report about FutureGen points out, gas-fired plants are expected to be able to meet these limits without additional cost or add-on technology. Coal-fired plants, on the other hand, can’t meet the limits using standard technology – they would have to use CCS technology.

The rules were originally proposed in 2012 and re-proposed last fall. The public comment period was extended 90 days from its initial close in March to May 9 – the month before EPA is supposed to release a proposal for limits on existing coal-fired plants.

EPA is not expected to require CCS retrofits for existing plants at this time, but the limits for new power plants could set a precedent for future, ever-tightening standards on carbon pollution.

Whether the rule will quicken the development and spread of CCS, which FutureGen’s delays suggest is not yet economically viable, or further decrease the number of new coal plants built in the U.S. and further push the market toward natural gas, is widely debated. But, as much as setting a precedent, the rule does seem like a market nudge to natural gas as a cost-effective fuel.

While natural gas comes with its own serious set of environmental problems, consumers tend to view it as a cleaner fuel than coal. Plus, we know from Energy Pulse 2013 that consumers support development of natural gas sources more than alternative sources like wind and nuclear (although definitely less than solar). If you find that you’re increasing your use of natural gas, talk to your customers about it. It may be economics on your part, but they will appreciate your efforts to use what is now widely viewed as an inexpensive, abundant, U.S.-based resource, and they should give you higher customer satisfaction marks for it.

And if you’re under pressure about your use of coal, remind customers that for now it needs to be one part of the generation mix to keep cost, reliability and the environment in balance. Though high winter bills are creating a pain point for many Americans, the fact that utilities kept the lights – and heat – flowing into people’s homes during such a high demand time is thanks to a balanced approach to power generation. (And, of course, the fact that bills weren’t even higher for natural gas customers is thanks to the currently low price of natural gas.)

FutureGen’s delays also open some communication doors for you. It’s a national-level reminder that cleaning up our energy is an extremely complex job, with no easy fix – and it requires finding an intersection between economics, technology and the environment (not to mention political parties). Let your customers and stakeholders know that you’re keeping up with the most recent developments in energy generation so that you’ll be ready to do what can be done, when it can be done – but that you won’t put them at risk of unreliable power or unrealistic generation costs.

This comes down to a matter of trust in many ways. While proactive and reactive topical communications are necessary, building your reputation is crucial in the interludes. Part of how you do that is through communications. Another part of that is – you guessed it – providing reliable power and reliable customer service. The utility industry has gotten so good at that piece, customers often take it for granted … which brings us back to communication. Do it early and often … and give us a call if you’d like some help.

Skills

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Posted on

April 2, 2014

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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