Indiana seems far from the dry desserts of the Middle East, but when it comes to energy the United States is considered the Saudi Arabia of coal.
The Wabash River Coal Gasification Plant, owned primarily by The Wabash Valley Power Association, is one of only two plants in the country that use gasification to generate electricity for consumer use.
The Department of Energy estimates that 273 billion tons of coal can be recovered in the United States. This makes the U.S. home to the largest coal reserves in the world. Russia has the second largest recoverable reserve with 173 billion tons.
According to plant manager Richard Payonk, the 420 million dollar project was part of the Department of Energy’s clean coal program in the early 90s.
Gasification is the process of creating a synthetic gas from any carbon based fuel, removing pollutants, and combusting the gas in a turbine, which turns a generator. Excess steam from the gasifier is used to power a separate turbine and sulfur is created as a useable byproduct that is sold to make products like fertilizer.
The older, more conventional, pulverized coal technology combusts coal, without removing pollutants, which produces emissions that are filtered partially by scrubbers and released into the earth’s atmosphere.
“We’re very very skeptical of Clean Coal,” said Jesse Kharbanda, Executive Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group.
“First of all it is a misnomer to call Clean Coal, Clean Coal because the impact that it has on the environment through mining and because of the significant and profound impact it has on the climate…obviously, it’s encouraging that there is a plant in our state and in this country that is a step above your average pulverized coal plant in terms of emissions of various concerning air pollutants but number one that gasification technology is rather outdated,” said Kharbanda.
Payonk acknowledges the need for continued energy research but feels gasification should play a role.
“I think some of the critics in fairness are looking at the fact that well to get coal you have to mine coal and mining coal may be dirty or you can’t completely ah remove CO2 and while that may be true, to go from today’s level of C02 production to zero isn’t a realistic step. We need to develop clean coal technology and continue from where this technology already is to the next generation gasification plant,” said Payonk.
Duke Energy is building a next generation plant in Edwardsport. The 630-Megawatt facility will be the largest coal gasification power plant in the world. Environmental advocacy groups have doubts about the project.
“There is no hard commitment to sequester any of the carbon dioxide that gets emitted from that plant,” said Kharbanda.
John Rupp, Assistant Director for Research at the Indiana Geological Survey, says carbon capture and sequestration is the process of capturing CO2, compressing it under high pressure, and storing it underground.
No coal power plant in Indiana captures and sequesters its carbon dioxide emissions. However, gasification simplifies the process because it creates a pure stream of CO2 that can more easily be sequestered.
“While there is progress being made on all the different facets of carbon capture and sequestration technology there are still significant technical and economic risks of pursing it,” said Kharbanda.
Developers of gasification have confidence in the technology but acknowledge the economic challenges.
“It is certainly a higher price to remove sulfur, to remove carbon dioxide, to produce a clean energy than a conventional coal-fired plant, which may just allow those to go up the stack and vent into our atmosphere and so the consumer has to ask am I willing to pay a little bit more for a cleaner environment and that’s always the difficulty,” said Payonk.
Experts are predicting the passage of federal carbon regulations within the next year. Indiana has the seventh largest carbon footprint in the country but environmentalists see a green future for the state.
“Indiana is so manufacturing dependant and that allows it to position itself to be one of the leaders in this country in manufacturing components for renewable energy systems and energy efficient technologies,” said Kharbanda.
Rupp says the state of Indiana is currently 95 percent coal dependant for power generation.
“The ultimate source of much of the electrical generation in this country will probably have to be based on coal because it is more than 50 percent of our energy portfolio at present and we can’t make that switch that fast,” said Rupp.