Cutting carbon from coal plants

Co-ops working with University of Illinois to demonstrate clean coal technology

The difficulty the world’s nations displayed recently in Paris in making firm commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions underlined the fact that there will not be one solution to global warming. There will be as many as we can think of.

At the December COP21 Summit in Paris, promises to reduce carbon dioxide releases from fossil fuels were not forthcoming from the world’s leaders. There was one reason. Clean, alternative, renewable energy is currently more expensive. That is why 20 of those rich nations agreed to use their research budgets to accelerate clean energy innovation through an agreement called Mission Innovation.

In Illinois, the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Illinois has joined with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to scale up technology that might dramatically reduce carbon dioxide from coal plants, which are generating most of our affordable electricity. DOE selected a multi-national team led by the University of Illinois to retrofit the University’s Abbott Power Plant in order to capture carbon dioxide.

The multi-national partners on the U of I team (Linde Group, BASF, Affiliated Engineering, and Burns & McDonnell) will try to meet DOE’s goal of economically removing 90 percent of all carbon from the flue gas. They plan to also test the new technology with natural gas combustion.

The Prairie Research Institute (PRI) approached the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) in 2015 to add support to its DOE carbon dioxide capture grant. “The opportunity to work with PRI on this cutting edge DOE grant opportunity came at the right time and right place,” says Stephen Davis, Manager of Regulatory Compliance with the AIEC.

The AIEC is working with CEOs Eric Hobbie from Menard Electric Cooperative and Jay Bartlett from Wabash Valley Power Association, Inc., as well as retired City Water Light and Power engineer Gregg Finigan, to add a high level of power generation expertise to the project. These experts are assisting PRI with the development of accurate sampling and monitoring procedures that PRI can use when monitoring the Abbott Power Plant.

“Ensuring the correct sampling methodology is used, and the equipment is selected and deployed properly during stack testing events, is a critical step toward ensuring that data generated during the PRI study will be valid and supportable,” Davis remarks.

PRI anticipates applying for a Phase II Grant with DOE in late spring of this year. The AIEC will continue to assist PRI as a partner in its efforts to evaluate strategic options for the use of Illinois coal, ensuring that electric cooperatives continue to have a broad range of compliance options as environmental regulations continue to evolve.

Why Illinois? Researchers at the Prairie Research Institute at the U of I have a track record of success in developing effective approaches to removing sulfur and other impurities from combustion gasses. PRI was also the lead institution in the large carbon sequestration demonstration project near Decatur, which successfully pumped 1 million metric tons of CO2 underground into the Mt. Simon Sandstone.

Illinois has a big stake in the research. Affordable coal generation helps keep Illinois’ electricity rates below the national average. And Illinois is a major coal producer with the fourth largest reserves in the U.S.

If aging coal plants are shuttered, and new ones are not constructed, the cost of energy will increase as will the cost of doing business in Illinois.

The Abbott Power Plant at the U of I is a good test site. It is 75 years old, but outfitted with a number of environmental technologies that keep it at peak performance whether it is fueled with coal, natural gas or fuel oil. It produces the majority of energy used on the more than 4,500-acre campus. The University’s Climate Action Plan commits to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, so important choices lie ahead.

DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has developed a roadmap for the deployment of second-generation carbon capture technologies at working power plants. The carbon capture technology developed by BASF/Linde for the U of I project is one of a half dozen methods to be tested.

The roadmap anticipates pre-combustion and post-combustion carbon capture advancements through the development of new solvents, sorbents and membranes. CO2 capture from coal combustion flue gas is the most expensive step in an integrated carbon capture and storage process. So the goal is to maximize CO2 capture without skyrocketing costs.

“Most sustainability achievements, cutting waste and energy and water use for instance, are made locally,” says Kevin O’Brien, Director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. “But greenhouse gas emissions are a global concern.” He added that in the U.S. today, 67 percent of electricity is generated by fossil fuels, 39 percent of that by coal. Around the world, the ability of developing economies to do without coal is unrealistic in the short term. So new technologies to help reduce CO2 emissions in both developed and underdeveloped countries are needed.

The project has recruited an advisory board representing major power producers around the world. That way, if the science is proven, the benefits can be disseminated quickly. Short of a revolutionary discovery, the economics of energy suggest that carbon capture is a bridge technology that simply must be advanced.