Coal gasification in National Geographic

This month, National Geographic has an article called "The High Price of Cheap Coal" (you need to actually get the print magazine to read it, unfortunately). If you do a search for "coal gasification" on TOD, you'll see a lot of instances where it came up in the comments, but unless I skimmed by it, there's been no post on coal gasification itself. Just yesterday, Engineer Poet said that coal gasification is well-understood—so is it just cost that makes it fairly uncommon for power plants?

We have had a number of posts about the Fischer-Tropsch process here on TOD (e.g., here), and it should be pointed out that coal gasification is basically the first step on the way toward coal liquefaction. However, what I'm interested in here is the use of gasified coal in its own right, as a way of generating electricity.

As the MSM often does (if National Geographic can be called MSM), it takes a "better" technology and makes it sound like the end-all-and-be-all of our energy-related environmental problems. The relevant point here, as we all know, is that the US has tons of coal (we're the "Saudi Arabia of coal", of course), but traditional coal-burning power plants spit out all of that CO2 that's causing global warning (more than the all of the cars, trucks, and airplanes in the US combined, according to this article).

Here are some excerpts from the National Geographic article:
The Wabash plant mixes coal or petroleum coke, a coal-like resideue from oil refineries, with water and pure oxygen and pumps it into a tall take, where a firey reaction turns the mixture into a flammable gas. Other equipment removes sulfur and other contaminants from the syngas, as it's called, befire it's burned in a gas turbine to produce electricity.

Cleaning the unburned syngas is cheaper and more effective than trying to sieve pollutants from power plant exhaust....

The syngas can even be processed to strip out the carbon dioxide. The Wabash plant doesn't take this step, but future plants could.

And then they discuss CO2 sequestration.

The article notes that just because there are a few apparently successful gasification plants in the US doesn't necessarily mean that everyone will immediately be embracing the technology, but the fact that the energy bill passed last July has tax credits for gasification projects will help. So far it all sounds very rosy, and the article even ends on this upbeat note:

...we may one day be able to cool our houses without turning up the thermostat on the entire planet.

Bonus point: Way back when Matthew Simmons did a live chat with the Washington Post, someone asked him about coal liquifaction (and by extension gasification, I guess, since that's how he answered):
Saint John, Canada: Given that there is a well understood technology for synthesizing other fossil fuels into oil (mostly coal) do you believe it will be possible to offset the production declines from conventional oil wells by increased coal liquefaction? How environmentally destructive is that process?

Matthew Simmons: I don't understand the environmental impact of coal gasification. Almost every single aspect of using unconventional oil, whether it's coal or Canadian tar sands or oil shales are all incredibly energy intensive, so they use a lot of energy to convert them into usable energy, and they don't come out of the ground at high amounts. So it becomes a daunting task to begin offsetting oil coming out of a highly pressurized oil field, which can come out at a rate of 5-10,000 barrels per day per well with unconventional oil sources, which are energy intensive and come out in small amounts.

OK. So go at it, TODers. Give us all you've got about coal gasification.
The 2004 Annual Report for General Electric mentioned that they were working on coal gasification to feed into a combined cycle power plant (higher efficiency than steam plant; major gains in heat rate for natural gas in going from steam to combined cycle*)

A graph posted here a week ago showed that one could get the same electricty with 21% less coal using this process.  I suspect that coal is getting pricey enough in some markets to justify the extra capital & operating expense (else GE would not be interested).

* Combined cycle burns the natural gas (or coal gas) in the first cousin of a jet engine, generates electricity, then uses the jet exhaust to boil water > steam > steam turbine > more electricity.

Or GE would like to sell a lot of turbines.
Given that its a well understood process, of which I don't understand anything chemically or thermodynamically, more than the concept, I would say that it has not been economical to power stationary power plants with gassified coal.  Logically, it would make zero sense to take the time and cost of gassifying coal, if you can burn it in its present form, unless there was some efficiency to gain, or there were some other overwhelming benifit to doing so, like gaining ease of mobility, or a nice clean efficient burn.  Obviously, ease of mobility is something of little use to a stationary power plant and I would suspect that there is also no advantage in its burning cleanliness.  Now there may be no alternative.

Can we move on to lithium crystals?

Consider the following possibilities and facts.

"Coal gas" powering a combined cycle plant will use 21% less coal to produce the same electricity (others guess).

It takes six or so years to build another coal steam plant (low efficiency).

94.5% of new US power plants in 2004 were NG, most combined cycle.  A trend in recent years.  I saw a number a while back that we had 60 GW of NG combined cycle plants.

NG hit $14/MMBTU recently and may go there again, or higher.

A NG combined cycle plant can be modified to burn coal gas by GE at "reasonable cost".

Idle plants use few spares, a MAJOR profit center and most NG combined cycle plants were made by GE.

Take the above facts & hypothesis and I can make a business case for GE.

Just trying to answer the thread's question, "why its not common now?".

I agree, if it will convert clean.

I still want to know how you knew Manifa had high V content?  I can't find anything more other than API and S%.

I heard that a long time ago, from this article:

Thank you Leanan.  Just went in the Saudi DB.  
DILITHIUM!!!! Puleeze!
I realize that turbine efficiencies have changed over the last years and that the time for coal gas could very well be now, I was only giving reasons why it has not been very popular up until now.

Ya, I know.  As soon as I hit post, I realized it was Di-, but I was too lazy to change it.  Besides, the wife was on my case to get off the #$*&%^ computer, so I left it as a test.  Congradulations, you passed.  Starfleet hereby promots you to Chief Engineering Officer.  Keep up the good work L.J. Romulan

Gee, I thought I was the only one who's wife bitched that they spent too much time on the computer here at TOD
I don't get it.  Are they all crazy???
Just yesterday, Engineer Poet said that coal gasification is well-understood--so is it just cost that makes it fairly uncommon for power plants?

Utilities have to issue bonds to build power plants.  Just pulverizing the coal and burning it to make steam requires a lot less investment than gasification.  Low investment rules in utilities.

...we may one day be able to cool our houses without turning up the thermostat on the entire planet.
Seems to me this "upbeat note" violates the laws of thermodynamics. All the heat pulled out of the house has to go somewhere...
No Violation.  It's not the heat from your house that the equation is suggesting gets added to the Atmosphere.

  Indirectly and to some degree, that heat IS involved, but much greater is the effect of Greenhouse Gasses (so the theory goes) that allow more SOLAR HEAT to collect and not get re-radiated into space, and I would have to include with that the great wastes and therefore overproduction in the power system that creates and transports that electricity; from basic inefficiencies and line-losses, to countless, mis-applied systems. We casually turn on the A/C to Cool a space that is simultaneously/constantly being heated by a Refrigerator, Lighting and other Electronics, and Solar Gain thru windows and leaky, uninsulated Walls and Roofs, while the ground, some 5 feet below the first floor is probably at a very acceptable temperature.  

  That statement might sound very pollyanna-istic (expiali-docious!).. but is easily proven with a few simple changes, some at each end of the Grid..

One obvious point would be that a plant that burns coal and makes steam cannot change output very quickly in order to meet demand.  Thus they use coal-burning plants to provide a base load, and use natural gas powered gas-turbines to match supply and demand.

I guess my immediate question is whether coal gassification changes this equation??  If there were a plant that was gassifying coal and then piping it into gas-turbines to generate electricity, would such a plant be able to quickly and easily adjust the output to meet demand (and thereby eliminate the need to use natural gas to generate electricity)?

No, coal gasification doesn't change the equation -- and IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle plant) would be baseload, because they would be so expensive. (I say would be because there are about 5 commercial scale plants in the world, 2 in the U.S., but they are all demonstration plants subsidized with gov't $).

An IGCC plant needs to run and run and run to pay off the investment, and its more complicated to run, start up, and shut down.

Everyone is pointing out the insanity of coal liquefication -- inefficiency, CO2, environmental devastation. ONE big benefit: keeps transportation and military going.

That benefit will trump the negatives for the Junta.

I think this may end up being something we do just to keep the military going.  I suspect it will be too expensive to use to replace the gasoline used in personal vehicles.  Fuel for Humvees, not for Hummers.
Nah.  The military will just commander all the oil produced in the U.S.  The civilians will use rickshaws, like in Blade Runner.  Looks like we're going to miss out on the flying cars and replicants, though.
Y'know, that was sort of what raised my interest in peak oil.  I started wondering why we didn't have flying cars, like the Jetsons.  Was it my imagination, or was technology slowing down?  

Last week, the LA Times had a column by Andrew Yarrow called Utopia lost. In it, he bemoaned America's loss of optimism:

In 1956, Fortune magazine published "The Fabulous Future," a book of essays by luminaries forecasting a nation of technological and economic wonders by 1980. Adlai Stevenson spoke of "the most extraordinary growth any nation or civilization has ever experienced." George Meany predicted "ever-rising" living standards. And David Sarnoff gushed, "There is no element of material progress we know today that will not seem from the vantage point of 1980 a fumbling prelude."

That same year, that wild utopian, Richard Nixon, then vice president in the Eisenhower administration, heralded a 30-hour, four-day workweek "in the not too distant future." Gallup polls found that only 3% of the population questioned whether the nation was enjoying "good times," and just 8% doubted that the good times would keep getting better indefinitely.

From the end of the Korean War to the peak of the Vietnam War, American media trumpeted a utopian future. A 1953 issue of Time predicted that a newborn would be twice as wealthy by her high school graduation and that a worker 100 years in the future would produce in seven hours what he now produced in 40. In 1954, Life magazine predicted a technotopia of jets, computers, color TVs, superhighways and doubled living standards by 1976. In 1959, Newsweek predicted that the 1960s would bring short workweeks, automatic highways and self-operating lawnmowers.

Today, someone named Martha Voght replied in a letter to the editor:

Andrew L. Yarrow, in "Utopia lost" (Opinion, Feb. 25), describes the rosy forecasts about America's economic future made during the 1950s and wonders what has happened to our sense of optimism. He ignores one forecast that turned out to be correct -- geologist M. King Hubbert's prediction in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. Hubbert was widely dismissed as an alarmist, but production in the Lower 48 states began to decline after 1970. Is it a coincidence that Americans' happiness index peaked between 1965 and 1973?

Geologist Kenneth Deffeyes has applied Hubbert's methods to world oil production and arrived at a peak production date of 2005. Any authors of "utopian dreams" better include a long chapter on alternative energy sources.

I fear she's right.  No flying to Mars for a three-hours-a-day, three-day workweek for us.  

Yeah.  Who knew I'd be rooting for Blade Runner as the optimistic outcome?
It's funny that one icon of Utopianism that we still see being developed and offered is that regular stab at having 'Your own, personal Robot'.. and what are the two tasks we almost universally assign to our Positronic Progeny?  Vacuuming and Serving Drinks.  Our Gleaming Silver cities still have been modeled with a Psychology and Social-Imagery not very far removed from times of Slavery, Feudalism and Royalty.

Don't remember where I saw it, but recently, I found a picture of some real place, and it was just like one of those 'Modern' Cities of the 1930's, silver and clean and efficiently purposeful and beneficent.  Turned out to be a Penitentiary.. yikes!, Though Charles deGaulle Airport in Paris looks the part, too, and from some angles, Roosevelt Island in NYC feels like a Logan's Run Urb, too.

I just don't know whether that "Optimism" was part of a mania of the IndustrialRevolution>NuclearAge, where we were just so drunk on the powersources that we'd found, that we believed that THESE would 'Bring Us' this Shiny, New World, and that the old Axioms about 'Might FOR Right', or 'Absolute Power Corrupting Absolutely' no longer applied.  Like our constant(prewired?) admiration of Regality, Strength, Authority, the energies we have unleashed and taken so many joy-rides behind.. they bought out our undying loyalty and our dreams of 'Things to Come'.

In his book, 'From Cradle to Cradle, remaking the way we make things'  (highly recommended)  William McDonough said that the apparent motto of the Industrial Age has been, 'If brute force doesn't work, you're just not using enough of it'
He puts some of the questions asked regularly in this Blog into an unconventional light, generally advocating business and economic systems, technology and mass-production, but also incorporating the other two 'legs of the Stool' (Social and Environmental Solutions) to come up with healthier models for manufacturers to operate under, and they seem to have worked to the benefit of Company Profits, Workers Conditions, Product Healthiness, Cleaner Factory Effluents, Energy Usage, etc..

I think it was natural to be that optimistic about technological progress then.  We tend to assume that what happened in the past will be what always happens. Technological progress was remarkable in the first half of the 20th century, and we assumed that it would continue always.

But technology is subject to Tainter's diminishing returns. It takes more and more energy to get less and less improvement, as the low-hanging fruit is picked first. My grandfather was born before the Wright Brother's first flight, and lived to see commercial airlines, man walk on the moon, and the space shuttle launched. Me, I was born just before man walked on the moon...and I suspect that's the greatest aviation achievement I'm likely to live to see, even if I live to be 100.

>...and I suspect that's the greatest aviation achievement >I'm likely to live to see, even if I live to be 100.

Don't be so godforsaken.
Take a thought. China, a country with very low per capita oil consumption, has launched its men in space. You need not gigaquontities of stuff to develop aviation or space technologies. What you need is very thin seam of scientists and engineers (some of them in special prison even, remember  Soviet GULAG's sharashkas) and relatively small quantities of natural resources.
In 1945 the industrial base of the Soviet Union was destroyed by 2/3. Hunger and poverty were common. Siberian oilfields were not discovered yet.  And still 4 years later SU made an n-bomb, in 1957 launched sputnik and in 1961 a man in space. All in 16 years.
Here in Russia they are developing new small reusable spaceship now (instead of too heavy and too costly Soviet analog of US's shuttle launched in 1988). So, around 2012-2015 you will see a new stage of space exploration.

IMO the main difference between today and yesterday is the first (and second) worlds that have lost technological monopoly. This is what you should be wary about. The so called third world countries today can make almost everything on their own from computer chips to cars to skyscrapers to jet planes to rocket boosters to nuclear bombs. All of that with not so plentiful resources.

That still does not address Tainter's "declining marginal returns."  

In short, I think that even without peak oil, we're flirting with collapse.  Peak oil will be merely the straw that breaks the camel's back.

And no, I am not being pessimistic because I'm giving up.  On the contrary - I think the work of Tainter, Diamond, and Greer shows us what we should be aiming for.  

I agree; I highly recommend reading McDonough's Cradle to Cradle. We got the design wrong. We can get it right.
Pedicabs are way more efficient than rickshaws and have been quite profitably in use in Honolulu for decades.
There is not as much that is new under the sun as we sometimes think.  

I worked as a project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) 20 years ago, in Palo Alto, CA, in the Advanced Power Systems  division, (APS division, unfortunately now defunct).  At that time EPRI successfully commisioned and ran their demonstration Integrated Coal Gasification Combined Cycle ("IPCC") power plant ("Coolwater", 100 Megawatt Electric [MWe] , about 10% of ultimately envisioned fullscale) in Daggett, California.   This plant was seen as the wave of the future, at a time when "peak oil" and "peak gas" were actually getting considerable attention. The 1984 (I think ?) Science Journal Article was authored by Dwain Spencer, Sy Alpert and Bob Gilman.   The plant had no regulatory problems.  This was a successful operation in California which had environmental rules among the strictest of any state. Coolwater was mothballed because (I recollect) of cost, including shipping coal to it, and small scale.    

The IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) has the advantages of (a) higher efficiency and correspondingly lower CO2 emissions, however I am not the advantage was as high as 21% over typical steam electric and (b) Much lower mercury, sulfur, CO, NOx, etc. emissions.  

The disadvantage was cost. The stated Coolwater electricity cost was 25cents/kWh. This was higher than the California Public Utilities Comission wanted ratepayers to pay. I do not know what power costs would be for newer generation fullscale (typically 1000 MWe) plants.

There have been periodic moves to restart Coolwater.  One proposal was to co-gasify, along with coal, (and for practical purposes eliminate) the City of Los Angeles' problem with dried sewage sludge. This was then a big disposal problem for which Coolwater would have received waste disposal credit as well as power sale revenue.  It was almost econoimically feasible, a close call, but not done.  

I do not know how "dispatchable" IGCC processes are for the key needs of meeting varying load, Poor dispatchability may be another disadvantage to coal IGCC in addition to cost.  Someone else have a comment?

The gasifiers and related equipment (including an oxygen plant) add a hell of a lot of investment for just a peaking plant.  More likely that if the power requirement varied you'd use the excess syngas to make methane or fertilizer and sell it.  However, the GE process, which uses an entrained bed gasifier, could turn up and down quite a bit if it had too.  The associated oxygen plant would only have turndown ability of 60-70% of nameplate.

A Lurgi-type gasifier (moving bed), IIRC, can gasify anything with carbon in it that doesn't form clumps.

Actually, Yankee, you have brought up one of great mysteries of future electricity generation. Consider the facts.
  • There are operating gasfication plants like Wabash and Polk now.
  • So, some utilities have gone forward with the technology but others have not. Upfront costs and regulatory constraints on utilities must play a central role here but yet there are some operating plants.
  • Coal gasification makes CO2 capture easier than in your basic coal-fired model. But there is no penalty (tax on CO2 emissions) so that is not figured into the costs. The big plan now is FutureGen. But if the technology is all pretty much there, what's the hold up? Why do we need a $1 billion, 10 year demonstration project if we should be able to do it now?
  • Coal gasification is more efficient than normal coal-fired plants.
    Efficiency gains are another benefit of coal gasification. In a typical coal combustion plant, heat from burning coal is used to boil water, making steam that drives a steam turbine-generator. In some cases, only a third of the energy value of coal is actually converted into electricity by most combustion plants, the rest is lost as waste heat.
  • The operating costs of a gasification plant surely must be higher than in a standard coal-fired plant for any of this to make sense.
I could go on. From this CBS story Montana's Coal Cowboy
The price tag to get his plan rolling -- $1.5 billion -- is a bargain, the governor says, now that crude is trading around $60 a barrel.

Dr. Robert Williams, a senior energy scientist at Princeton, agrees.

"At the oil prices that we expect for the long-term, it would be economic," Williams said....

But even in the new way there's an environmental problem, and it's a big one: carbon dioxide, which, while not a poison, is the No. 1 cause of global warming.

"Carbon dioxide will be generated at a rate that would lead to greenhouse gas emissions that are twice those for conventional crude oil," said Williams.

To which Schweitzer basically answers "Oh, no problem. We'll capture the CO2 and sell it to operators for EOR CO2 injection or sequester it" [a paraphrase, not a direct quote]. That would indicate to me that an operating gasification plant like Wabash is emitting CO2 like there's no tomorrow (which there may not be, if we continue on like this), though I don't know how the CO2 emissions compare to a standard coal-fired plant.

So to sum up, I can't figure out what's going on with this "miracle technology" of the present and future. There are hidden technological and cost constraints in there somewhere but I can't figure out what they are.

I suspected something like this, which is why I wanted to open up the topic for discussion. As it is we (in my household) already choose to pay more for green power, so if the power companies can make an incentive for people to shell out more for that, why can't they also do it for coal gasification? They'd just have to come up with the right pitch. Lower CO2 emission? Well as you say, it's not clear that they actually do produce less C02. Does anyone know for sure?

I've done a sketchy google search to see if there's anything readily accessible that claims that IGCC systems have lower CO2 emissions that traditional coal powered plants. I haven't seen that yet--all I've seen is that IGCC plants are well-suited to CO2 sequestration in a way that conventional plants are not. E.g.:

To effectively reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the coal gasification would need to be linked to carbon sequestration technology -- storing carbon dioxide so it doesn't enter the atmosphere -- that won't be viable for 15 years, said Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an association of utilities that produce more than 70 percent of the nation's electric power.

"There's a lot of interest in the industry in coal gasification because it has the potential to produce low emissions for a number of pollutants," Riedinger said. "But for carbon dioxide control it's like building half a bridge. We need sequestration technology to get us all the way there."

Tangentially related: There is kind of an interesting paper from the Kennedy School at Harvard about the congressional suggestion that any new IGCC plants be made "sequestration ready", but not necessarily operational at the moment.

Watch out for a representative of the utilities stating that a technology will not be viable for 15 years.  If they actually stated that it was feasible somebody might ask them to clean up their existing power plants, and that would cost them money.
Some wandering around through Google suggests that the CO2 emissions from IGCC are lower than from conventional coal production. The operator of the Wabash IGCC plant comments

Wabash River is a repowering of a 1953 vintage pulverized coal plant, one that was operating on compliance coal, and had precipitators but was unscrubbed. Compared to the performance prior to the repowering, based on 1990 data for the older plant, the new facility makes almost six times as many megawatt hours of electrical power, yet reduces emissions of SOX by over 5500 tons per year, NOX by 1180 tons per year, and PM-10 particulates by 100 tons per year. It produces 20% less CO2 per megawatt of production because it is 20% more efficient than the original plant.

The Australian Coal Association also compares IGCC to conventional coal combustion saying

IGCC systems additionally produce less solid waste and lower emissions of SOx, NOx and CO2.

And from Wikiepdia I learnt that CO2 recovery from IGCC is easier than from coal combustion because

It also makes for the possibility of zero carbon dioxide emissions even though the energy comes from the conversion of carbon to carbon dioxide. This is because gasification produces a much higher concentration of carbon dioxide than direct combustion of coal in air (which is mostly nitrogen). The higher concentrations of carbon dioxide makes carbon capture and storage more economical than otherwise.
They're obvious.  You stated them yourself.  A power plant using gasification requires the gasifiers, an oxygen source, CO2 removal, a water shift reactor, and miscellaneous other equipment that a straight burn the coal steam power plant does not.  This can as much as double the investment over the kind that is being built now.  The gasifier plant uses less coal and produces less CO2 than the regular kind, but utilities like low investment.

Now oil-fired power plants or gas-fired power plants produce a lot less CO2 than either coal cycle, as you stated, and are a lot cheaper to build.  All you have to do is find the oil or gas to burn.

Are you talking about the initial investment costs or the operating costs or both? So, what about FutureGen? Why do we need that if the technology is already there?

By the way, I think you said you grew up in Pittsburgh in a recent post. Me, too. Slip me an e-mail.

best, Dave

The goal of FutureGen is to co-produce hydrogen and electricity, while sequestering 90% of the CO2.  

A quote from the Romm book (p 165):

"[C]oal can be gasified and the resulting syngas can then be chemically processed to generate a hydrogen-rich gas for fuel and a stream of CO2 that can be piped to a sequestration site.  This hydrogen-rich gas can be combusted directly in a combined cycle power plant, or it can power a high temperature fuel cell."

"DOE's FutureGen project for coal gasification and CO2 sequestration envisions using the hydrogen to generate clean power, at least initially, perhaps using a solid oxide fuel cell."  ["Initially" because they would like to run your SUV on hydrogen eventually.]

From p. 82:  "A 2002 study for the National Energy Technology Laboratory found that coal gasification systems with CO2 capture could achieve efficiencies of 60 percent or more in cogenerating hydrogen and electricity using various combinations of turbines and SOFCs [solid oxide fuel cells]."

I hasten to point out that he discusses all of this in the context of his larger point that hydrogen is over-hyped as a potential transportation fuel, and stationary fuel cells have had a very hard time becoming commercially viable...hence the title of his book, which I linked in my other comment.  

Joseph Romm talks about Future Gen and related technology in his book The Hype About Hydrogen.  If I recall correctly, one potential benefit is that we could use the hydrogen that is co-produced through gassification to generate additional electricity with industrial scale, high temperature fuel cells.  Furthermore, if you can site the plant in a location where the waste heat can be put to good use (e.g., district heating), you have further efficiencies.  

All of this basically gives you more useful energy in the form of electricity and heat per unit of CO2 emissions.  If you can do this AND somehow sequester the CO2, then you would have a real winner.  If we are concerned about wind and other renewables scaling to the level of output we need to reduce CO2 emissions, this may help us close the gap.  

Dr. Romm has this to say about F-T diesel, in a letter to 60 Minutes about Sunday's show:

Subject: Letter on Montana Coal story (and previous week's global warming story)

To 60 Minutes:

First you run a story explaining how dire the global warming situation is, how we are risking devastating sea level rise and hurricanes by burning fossil fuels. The next week you run a story on a Montana governor who wants to run our cars on diesel fuel made from coal, which generates twice as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide as regular diesel. The governor says he's going to solve this by capturing the carbon dioxide and selling it to oil companies to "boost the amount of oil they can pump."

I hate to break the news to you, but oil is a fossil fuel, too, so rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this idea will just generate even more. For those who want to stop global warming before it's too late, turning coal to diesel is perhaps the worst idea ever.

Dr. Joseph Romm
Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy (1997)
Author, "The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate"

Thanks, I hadn't seen that.  
I don't know about the operating costs except gasification is more complicated than just a steam plant. But they are more expensive; Wabash and Polk got built as fed demonstration plants, big federal $ behind them.

The $1.5 billion quoted on 60 minutes is lowball for what Governor Schweitzer was indicating for getting started; a 20,000 or 25,000 BPD unit has been what he has talked about before at that price. But when you consider that a plant that size would use as much coal as the Dakota Gasification Plant, which cost $2 billion 20 years ago, and which gasifies coal but doesn't liquefy the gas... it seems too cheap.

On the CO2 - yep it's coming out of Polk and Wabash unrestrained, but it's less than out of a steam plant producing the same amount of electricity because IGCC is more efficient (@40% compared to 33% for steam). When Professor Williams said Fischer-Tropsch was twice as bad, he meant twice as bad as diesel from oil. The governor said we can capture the CO2, but that's just in the plant -- when you burn the F-T diesel, there's just as much CO2 out the tailpipe. And because coal is higher carbon than petroleum and you can't capture 100% of the CO2 at the plant, F-T diesel is actually 10% WORSE for global warming than diesel from petroleum even if you capture the CO2 and sequester it as the governor pledges. They left that off of 60 minutes, of course.

From my understanding the hidden constraint, at least for coal to liquids, is that it is so capital-intensive.

More potential "good news:"

A fuel cell powered by charcoal!  I wonder how easy it will be to feed in the charcoal and keep the electrolyte (potassium hydroxide) clean.  Basic charcoal has been produced in the woods for centuries, but high quality charcoal is very expensive.  Even still... charcoal might even help in the production of biofuels on the other hand, oxidizing carbon produces CO2.  Oh well, its got to be better than burning coal.

Another wave power energy idea:

One problem with hybrids is the cost, so how about a 157-mpg desiel that is projected to only cost $13,000 or is it just a dream?

Wouldn't it be nice to have a bus waiting for you every time you walked up to a stop? "Personal Rapid Transit" is this just another "pie in the sky"?

And, in the "not good news for peak oil"

A projection that will affect world consumption:  India Forecasted to Surpass Japan as the World's Third Largest Economy in 2006 - how much additional oil will they need for this?

We're now getting pro-coal ads, to go with the nuclear, natural gas, and ethanol ads.  

The ad features a little girl, who says that we have 250 years worth of coal.  

But weren't they saying we had "hundreds of years" worth of natural gas, just five or six years ago?  We were the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas."  Kind of makes me wonder why I should believe we're the "Saudi Arabia of coal" now.

I can remember when the US had 600 years of coal reserves.

So, in 30 years, we lost 350 years worth of reserves !!

Shows what exponential growth can do :-(

We have coal for several hundred years if we let it do it's job, sequestering carbon and (here in Montana) serving as an aquifer.

If we mine it all for synfuels, it will go quickly (and we'll cook the planet a lot faster.) Somebody can check my numbers, but I think this is right:

It's often said we have 120 billion tons, one-third of the nation's coal that's recoverable, in Montana, but that's counting a lot of coal that would be expensive to get to, most of it only deep mineable. You need a cheap feedstock for this process, anything other than stripmineable coal is way too expensive.

We have 45 billion tons strippable coal in Montana. A lot of that would be illegal to mine under the Federal stripmine act (it's under land that's off limits) but never mind that. Assume you could mine it all. It's only 1100 square miles or so.

Generously, you get 1.5 barrels of fuel from 1 ton of our coal (which ranges from 7,000 btu/lb or less lignite, to 8500 btu subbituminous) in the Fischer-Tropsch process. Figure out what forty billion tons of coal gets you in millions of barrels per day over forty years; I come up with 10 million barrels per day. That's about half of U.S. current oil consumption (it wouldn't quite replace our imports).

So forget the global warming implications all the other environmental implications, and the fact that we don't have enough water here to go with all of that coal. If we stripmined every last mineable ton in Montana, this just won't do it. As others have said many places around TOD, it's going to take a lot more than switching from one fossil fuel to another.

In my home state of Alaska, we have the Healy Clean Coal Project.  There was no gasification involved,  except for that one explosion, just burning pulverized coal in two stages with some limestone added.  It is generally considered a colossal boondoogle. Part of this can be attributed to construction/design incompetence (coal handling equipment that wore out in a few months). I think most of the badness came from the new technology providing alot more "surprises" than anyone expected.

Judging from the difficulties with this attempt at an incremental advance for coal combustion, I have a bad feeling about attempts to use more sophisticated techniques like gasification.

Alaska gets most of it's electricity from hydroelectric, with MANY good prospects left (looking for hydro prospects in Alaska is like looking for oil in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s !).  And wind potential is "pretty good" as well !

Why the heck is anyone looking at burning coal there ?

Yes, why do keep doing dirty, polluting, climate changing stuff? Are we stupid? Sadly, coal is relatively cheap and easy and more suitable for base loads than say, wind. Also, it's inertia: we've always done it this way and we have a lot of people who know how to do it and make it happen. Bit like trying to get the auto industry to transition out of steel...

I am from the interior of Alaska, and while there has been alot of talk about hydro there (Rampart Dam), there has not been any real development.  The report above says about 20% of Alaskan electricity is hydro, I was surprised it was that much.  We did find a cute little Pelton wheel on my Dad's gold claim, but never did get the old timer's ditch to hold water well enough to run it or the hydraulic monitor (giant water cannon) :-(

I am abit dismayed that NG is up around a 40% share of the grid.  I know the Kenai gas fields are in decline and that they had to close the fertilizer plant there.  Without some sort of NG pipeline soon, there will be real trouble with the Alaskan grid as the NG electric capacity starves for gas.

There are excellent wind power sites.  Donnelly Dome, a wind-swept monolith near where those interceptor missiles are based at Fort Greeley, has got to be a 5 star wind power site.

Alaska is rife with excellent hydro possibilities.  The state gov't is almost totally funded with oil royalities (whilst Louisiana gets 0% from our offshore oil :-(

What better investment for the future than to build a set of hydroelectric projects ?  Perhaps part of your $20 billion Permanent Fund could be invested in Alaskan hydro &, perhaps wind.

Quite frankly, Rampart is just too big for your needs (unless you want to get into aluminum smelting).  A series of smaller projects, scattered around the state, would be best.

BTW, if you want to rehab the Pelton, please let me now.

Any nameplate on size ?  Is site served by grid ?  

..mixes coal or petroleum coke, a coal-like resideue from oil refineries, with water and pure oxygen and pumps it into a tall take, where a firey reaction turns the mixture into a flammable gas.

In my opinion the big question is: Can that be done "in situ"? If so I have the idea coal extraction can be scaled up, if not I reckon coal gasification will at best replace natural gas for the production of natural gas.

Would you all agree with this?

Aha! This is interesting:

"Another method is underground, subsurface gasification of coal. That means that you burn or gasify the coal in the subterranean layers themselves and then harvest the production gasses, mostly hydrogen, but also some methane. It is a complex process and fairly difficult to control. The amount of gas produced can be disappointing and the burning coal beds can be dangerous; rocky layers above the coal can crack or even collapse. Therefore, early attempts in the 1980s were abandoned. Still, new research has begun in the United States and the first results seem promising."

I recall seeing long ago an idea about using in situ lasers powered by PVs to gasify coal. It would probably be more efficient to use an electric heating coil but only if you had a clean, cheap source of electricity. Perhaps a way to store wind power in the syngas?
No matter where I look I always see a trade-off between efficiency and capital cost. IGCC vs straight coal buring. Hybrid cars vs diesels. Fuel injection vs carburaters. Silicon PVs vs printable PVs.
> No matter where I look I always see a trade-off between efficiency and capital cost.

Everywhere but Hydro :-)

Electrical & Mechanical losses combined often less than 10%.  Equipment that should be rebuilt every 40 or 50 years (but can often be pushed close to a century).  Large EROEI's

Hydro is wonderful where it works, but it won't work in most places--unless we could figure out some way to transmit electricity efficiently for very long distances (2,500 miles+).

When the flood waters are once again six-feet deep and rising in New Orleans (six months from now? 18 months?), take a look at NE Washington state. Now, if we could just get an electrified rail grid based on Spokane . . . .