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Western coal coming clean

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AP photoWith a transformer tower in the foreground, one of the smokestacks of the coal-fired power plant owned by Xcel Energy stands over the electrical plant in north Denver. Xcel Energy and a handful of other utilities are looking at building a $1 billion demonstration plant at high altitude to prove that Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology will work in the West.
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DENVER ” A Colorado mountainside, the high plains of Wyoming or the Dakota prairie may become the next proving ground for a gee-whiz technology to clean up coal-fired power plants.

Several utilities, including Xcel Energy, are considering a $1 billion demonstration plant to prove the technology ” called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC ” will work in the West.

An IGCC plant can cost as much as 20 percent more to build than a conventional plant but the technology could make it more efficient to operate and could help companies avoid the hassle and expense of adding pollution-control devices, industry officials say.



“That’s one of the reasons why companies that are anticipating the possibility of greenhouse gas regulation are trying to build coal gasification facilities,” said Dan Riedinger of the Edison Electric Institute, an association of shareholder-owned electric companies. “They’re cleaner off the bat.”

With increased demand for electricity and concern about global warming caused by carbon dioxide, there is renewed interest in clean-coal technologies like IGCC and FutureGen, a $1 billion power plant project designed to essentially eliminate polluting emissions. Multiple states are bidding for the project, which is in the planning stages.



In a conventional power plant, coal is pulverized and burned in a boiler to produce electricity. Emissions are caught and filtered at the back end of the process.

IGCC technology converts coal to a gas that is burned in a turbine to produce electricity. Pollutants are removed before the fuel is burned, Riedinger said. The technology is being used in plants in Indiana and Florida but has yet to be tested with Western coal at a higher altitude.

Western coal has a higher moisture content and lower heating value, so it takes more coal to produce the same amount of heat as coal mined in the eastern United States, said geologist Nick Jones of the Wyoming State Geological Society.



Besides the technological challenge of having to remove the moisture from Western coal, power plants built at altitudes where the air is thinner tend to be less efficient, said Steve Waddington, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.

Like other technologies aimed at cleaning up coal, IGCC is an “arrow in the quiver to help with global warming issues,” said John Neilsen of Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based environmental law and policy organization.

“When you talk with utilities, there is a recognition at some point we are going to have these regulations and this would be one technology that could help address those greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Taking technology a step beyond IGCC is the FutureGen project, which converts coal into highly enriched hydrogen gas that burns cleaner than coal. The plant also would be designed to isolate most carbon dioxide emissions and inject them into underground reservoirs. Some utilities hope the injections will help them recover oil from depleted oil fields.

A group of coal and electric companies has committed more than $250 million to the project, and the federal government is offering about $700 million. Finalists competing for the plant site are expected to be named this summer with a winner to be announced in 2007. Illinois, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming are all interested.

“FutureGen is the moon shot. It’s designed to try to stretch the envelope on the technology on many different directions,” Waddington said.

Wyoming also is hoping to use the FutureGen process to send carbon dioxide emissions into the ground to enhance the recovery of oil from depleted fields.

If the state is not selected for FutureGen, there is always IGCC, Waddington said. His agency soon will start searching for a vendor to build an IGCC demonstration plant in Wyoming.

Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy is looking at building an IGCC plant in Colorado. “We are interested in or optimistic about the potential for the plant,” Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said. “We see some advantages in terms of the emissions when compared to current plants, although we do quite a bit to try to control the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions.”

In addition, Basin Electric Power Cooperative of Bismarck, N.D., is working with GE Energy and Bechtel Power Corp. on developing an IGCC plant in South Dakota or North Dakota.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act includes financial incentives specifically for an IGCC plant built at an altitude of at least 4,000 feet in a Western state and operate on Western coal. Some utilities have said they will seek federal incentives, while others will probably seek regulatory approval to get their investment back from ratepayers, like Xcel. There could be multiple plants.

“There’s no reason to believe that the technology won’t work with Western coals, but because it hasn’t been really demonstrated with Western coals there are uncertainties about what the prices will be and how it will perform,” Neilsen said.

Stutz figures Xcel may have a leg up after Colorado lawmakers approved legislation that will allow the utility to recover the cost of an IGCC plant from ratepayers.

The utility plans to look at the feasibility of the IGCC plant over the next three years before deciding whether to proceed. If it goes ahead with construction, the plant most likely will be built near one of Xcel’s existing facilities in northwest Colorado, metropolitan Denver or Pueblo, he said.

“If we do pursue the clean-coal technology through IGCC and we can get a significant amount of federal funding ” $200 million is kind of the number that is talked about ” that allows us to build additional generation at a greatly reduced cost than if we were just building that plant ourselves,” he said.

On the Net:

Edison Electric Institute: http://www.eei.org

Western Resource Advocates: http://www.westernresourceadvocates.org

Energy Department: http://eia.doe.gov.

Wyoming Infrastructure Authority: http://www.wyia.info


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