The Trump Administration Might (Sort Of) Be Serious About Clean Coal

Workers at the troubled carbon capture plant in DeKalb, Mississippi in November, 2015. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Workers at the troubled carbon capture plant in DeKalb, Mississippi in November, 2015. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

The Trump era is unlikely to be known for aggressive climate action, but there is one front on which scientists, engineers, and policymakers may yet make a little progress over the next few years: carbon capture technology.

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On February 15, the Department of Energy announced that it would be doling out $6.5 million to advance nine projects that could lead to “transformational coal technologies.” These projects, which are still in the conceptual phase, were selected following an announcement last summer that the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy would be putting $50 million toward the eventual construction and operation of two high-efficiency, low-emissions coal plants.

This is the sort of stuff energy wonks are referring to when they use the term “clean coal” (in contrast with Trump, who seems to think the term refers to, uh, all coal all the time). And the carbon capture and storage technologies needed to make such tech a reality could help decarbonize other sectors of our economy too, like manufacturing. Further down the line, carbon capture technologies could even lead to plants that suck CO2 straight out of the air.

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Bob Perciasepe, President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, called the DOE’s announcement “a small but welcome commitment” toward technologies that represent “an insurance policy” for the climate.

“We believe, globally, since there’s so many fossil fuel generating electricity plants all over the world, and climate change is a global issue, the chance of all those plants being gone by mid century are pretty near zero,” Perciasepe said.

“I wish the federal government was doing more, and I know some people will look askance at this [new DOE investment],” he continued. “But we need to be investing in this technology.”

There have been a few other positive developments on the carbon capture front of late. For starters, Trump didn’t get away with obliterating the DOE’s carbon capture research programs, something he had proposed doing in his FY-2018 budget request. Instead, last week’s Congressional budget deal restored $200 million to DOE Fossil Energy R&D programs for “clean coal technologies.”

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A tax credit in the recently-passed budget bill provides further incentives for technologies that pull carbon from the air. Julio Friedmann, former principal deputy assistant secretary at the Office of Fossil Energy, told MIT Tech Review he thinks “we’ll see dozens of [carbon-capture] projects appear in the next couple of years that could not have happened otherwise.”

Taken together, Perciasepe says, there’s grounds to be cautiously optimistic that progress on carbon capture won’t grind to a screeching halt in the same way that more direct forms of federal climate action have.

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“It seems there’s enough bi-partisan support in Congress that we can help keep the—no pun intended—flame on this stuff,” he said.

The nine projects splitting the $6.5 million in DOE seed funding for feasibility studies include a post-combustion carbon capture coal plant at the University of Kentucky, a “supercritical CO2 cycle” pilot plant at the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center, and a high-efficiency coal plant with carbon capture at the Southwest Research Institute. A subset of the projects will move on to design and construction phases.

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It’s a start. But with less than two dozen large-scale carbon capture plants currently operating across the world, and individual projects running into the billions of dollars, the feds are going to have to pony up a lot more to make Trump’s “beautiful clean coal” future a reality.

Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

There’s a difference between removing CO2 from the air and scrubbing it from coal flue gas. It mostly has to do with concentration of CO2 and temperature. For instance, here’s a typical flue gas composition for coal and for shits and giggles, natural gas:

Coal-fired flue gas: 13% CO2, 6% H2O, 5% O2, 50 ppm CO, 420 ppm NOx, 420 ppm SO2, and 76% N2.

Natural gas fired flue gas: 8% CO2, 15% H2O, 5% O2, 250 ppm CO, 65 ppm NOx, and 73-74% N2.

Air has about 405 ppm CO2. So there’s 130,000 ppm / 405 ppm or 320 times more CO2 (by volume) in coal plant exhaust than air. This feed condition lends to completely different process engineering and power engineers thoughts and prayers for billable work.

The only reason Rick Perry is interested in so called clean coal is to collect CO2 for oil and gas reservoir flooding in soon to be petering out shale fields in ND, TX et al.

Enough of this preliminary engineering bullshit.

The best way as far as process optimization goes for generating electricity from coal is simply to burn it for steam, with no pollution control or downstream fiddle fucking. Maybe a tall stack. As process design gets more and more Rube Goldberg esque for simply offgas treatment/processing - it becomes a completely dumb idea and makework program for stainless steel vessel manufacturers. Most of the process design becomes flue gas separation and handling - not steam and then electricity generation.

Clean coal has been a thing to develop and put on the market ever since I was a strapping young lad with hopes and dreams of maybe too finding a half assed solution to keep fossil fuels around longer than they should.