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IS OUR COAL FIRED POWER PLANT LOSING STEAM?

June 22, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
Let me begin with the observation that I am not opposed to a new power plant for Jamestown. I favor Jamestown’s ability to generate electricity. Further, I believe that since coal is such an abundant resource that coal must play a central role in the production of electricity far into the future. However, I continue to have unanswered questions regarding the proposed project..

My understanding is that this new plant, a product of the blending of existing technologies, is the first of its kind, at least one of the first, to capture carbon dioxide, compress it and transport it to a cavity deep underground for hundreds or thousands of years. That process is called On Shore Geologic Sequestration of CO2 and is a relatively new technology. The object of OSGS is to reduce atmospheric accumulations of CO2 in the atmosphere captured from coal fueled power plants. Further, there is near universal scientific agreement that the technology works and is totally doable.

For a coal fueled power plant the process is fairly simple; (1) incoming air would be directed through an air separation unit (2) coal is used to fire a boiler (the object is to create steam) and (3) the resulting carbon, oxygen and flue gas would be captured, compressed and (4) transported under pressure through a pipeline to a place were in would be (pressure) injected between 3000 and 15,000 feet into an underground cavity.

As I understand In Jamestown’s case we are not exactly building a new power plant; we are converting to an Oxy-Coal system and retro fitting an existing plant. There are experts in the field that believe that modifying existing boilers to Oxy combustion poses significant challenges, specifically problems concerning heat transfer and retrofitting boilers to handle higher temperatures. I read where one expert contends that is a minor modification compared to installing a flue gas recirculation system which may require replacing air ducts and fans. Another expert notes that piping involved in recycling flue gas to the front end of the combuster would be a “nightmare for existing units.

However, in a paper titled THE POTENTIAL LAW OF ON-SHORE GEOLOGIC SEQUESTRATION OF CO2 CAPTURED FROM COAL POWERED POWER PLANTS ) by Jeffrey W. Moore, a professional engineer and geologist who at the time (2007) was about to graduate from law school at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. suggests a legal problem. He writes that based on current law operators of such facilities may “face excessive liability that provides little additional protection for public health and the environment.” He claims that injecting vast quantities of supercritical CO2 underground involves inherent risks. He claims that current law could also stifle beneficial uses of OSGS if operators are unnecessarily subjected to operational restrictions and long term liability.

Heretofore, there has been an attempt by the Board of Public Utilities and/or their spokespersons to marginalize opposition to the current proposal as outsiders or fringe groups. That is not helpful; so far I have found the following groups are officially on record in opposition to the Jamestown proposal: Sierra Club, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, American Lung Association, Environment Advocates of New York, Great Lakes United, New York Public Interest Research Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pace Law School Energy Project, and the Western New York Climate Action Committee. I cannot attest to the veracity or validity of all of the organizations, however, I am certain that of those most familiar that none are cooks, goofy or fringe groups.

Remove Jamestown from the equation and there remain legitimate objections by serious minded people and organizations to the very idea of carbon sequestration. There are those who maintain with scientific support that “capturing technology raises the energy consumption of a coal plant by an average of 32 percent.” They argue logically that a coal plant equipped with CO2 capture technology would burn 32 percent more coal to produce the same amount of electricity. The same groups also argue that “if fuel use of electricity rises, the same goes for air pollution from coal plants and for the ecological consequences of coal mining. Storing the CO2 does not solve that.” While environmentalists stipulate that CO2 Sequestration and Enhanced Oil Recovery works to increase oil production they cite experience with the Weyburn Field in Saskatchewan, Canada. That project, financed by the Department of Energy, captured CO2 from a coal gasification plant in North Dakota and transported it over 200 miles to the Weyburn field for sequestration and enhanced oil recovery. The DOE reported that the field’s recovery rate doubled.

The opponents of sequestration argue that the most obvious problem with sequestration is, if we put it in the ground will it stay there? No one knows for sure, that is why Weyburn is being closely monitored. Next they maintain, getting out the additional oil produces more CO2 than is buried and the Weyburn case study supports that conclusion.

Regardless of arguments for or against the proposed plant, I accept the prevailing science, my questions are neither technological nor environmental and are questions I have had from the beginning.

How are we going to transport our CO2? Pipeline? Where are we going to bury it? Are we still only replacing one boiler? If so, what will happen 10 years hence when we must replace the others? Must we spend millions more then? Since we purchase 80% of our electricity from hydro and buy most of the balance on the open market at lower costs than we can produce it, why are we producing electricity? Are we producing electricity just to sell on the commercial market? If that is the case, why don’t we fix the boiler and forget about going in debt. And, finally... Why are we building this plant?

 
 

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