Friday, May 27, 2005

Integrated Gasification Combination Cycle

I addressed IGCC yesterday and I want to touch a bit more on the technology and why I think it's important that we push this. I also want to share what I've done about this so far and if there are any of you out there that may have similar inclinations I encourage you to get involved on some level as well.

As I laid out in yesterday's post, there are definite problems with using coal as an energy source, and unfortunately in this country it's not likely we'll any time soon (and then only if we come up with something like viable fusion power) be able to avoid using it. Of course this isn't just about carbon, however much many of us feel that we're dumping too much of the stuff into the air. It's also about reducing acid rain, smog (which hasn't gone away, which anyone living in LA or Dallas will verify), and mercury emissions. So as I see it we're going to have to live with this stuff for some time, even with its problems, so we sensibly should make the best of it, right?

But here's the problem: The coal industry figures it'll be able to hold off legislation indefinitely that might compel them to go this route, while new coal-fired plants using the older, cheaper technology are built that our kids get to live with for the following forty to fifty years after they're built. That anyone can be so shortsighted in their perspective doesn't surprise me, we've seen it often enough in other places and ways. Here the dollar speaks louder than the better social good, which isn't being done much good with global warming (I'm sorry, it's happening, it's real, and as I sit here on the 26th of May in RI, with a temperature of 52 degrees outside, and rain for the past week, it's more and more real to me all the time) and all the garbage these plants spew into our air.

Bottom line, I honestly feel that we have an industry with far too much influence in our political system that is not only focused on its profit margin, but in the course of this emphasis on money is setting us up to screw ourselves and our kids in the future. This is the same industry which manages to get shills like Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) to make statements like:

With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.

Phony science, huh? Well it seems to me that the senator from the great state of Oklahoma is from the Rick Santorum school of science illiterates. Ok, my intention here is not to rail on rightwing ideologues who, unfortunately, along with the president and his minions, are in a position to make policy for this country and frame our response to what more and more is apparent to be a real problem, i.e. how we're fouling our environment without any regard to the future. My real problem here is that the industry has a way of going about addressing this problem, to a great degree mitigating it, and their position would seem to largely be if we're not forced to do it we're not about to. In the meantime, in defiance of just about any other industrialized country on the planet, we're dumping more and more carbon and garbage into the air, gradually changing our environment, quite possibly irreparably. It's something like this that riles me (you may have guessed already, sorry ...), and calls for specific government involvement.

There are times when I feel like a tiny speck in the maelstrom of national affairs, but I know there are things I can go about doing and that's sending letters to my congressional rep and senators, and if you're not up on how to go about getting their addresses here you go: U.S. Senate, and United States House of Representatives- both pages have sections that help you find your representative and a way to go about getting in touch with them. Note: You can normally send email or a letter to your reps, but I'm inclined to think that letters are taken a bit more seriously as those working for the representative appreciate that you took the time to mail the thing, ergo you MUST feel strongly about what you're communicating.

Ok, that said, here's the the letter I sent out three days ago (I sent it to Santorum and Inhofe as well, and it was worded just as you see it here as I wanted to indulge my better nature):

Dear _________________:

As a resident of Rhode Island I am writing to express my concern about the use of coal as a source of energy in this country, and to ask that you consider possible legislation that would encourage the use of a particular technology which has been fully investigated by the U.S. Department of Energy, that would help to reduce the negative byproducts associated with the burning of coal for energy.

The technology I'm referring to is integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), which was recently highlighted in an article in the NY Times ("Dirty Secret: Coal Plants Could Be Much Cleaner" by Kenneth J. Stier, May 22, 2005). You'll also find a great deal of information regarding this technology, which has been around for well over ten years, at the U.S. Department of Energy's web site. Coal-powered plants using this technology are 10% more efficient, use 40% less water, the technology allows for the stripping out of about 50% of the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides which cause acid rain and smog, and 95% of the mercury in coal all before combustion at a tenth of the cost of what it takes to scrub smokestack emissions as they leave the power plant. An additional attractive feature to this technology is that it allows for the capture of carbon prior to combustion, i.e. it significantly reduces the release of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

While the long-term costs of IGCC plants are less, the cost to build them is about 20% above that for a standard coal-fired plant, which as you know presents a problem that could easily sway where an investment is made. In the national interest I believe it would be appropriate for the government to subsidize such plants, and require that new coal-fired plants be built with this technology --- the utilities could build at the cost of a standard plant and in the long-term save money as well as have a far smaller negative affect on the environment. Such a measure goes a long way to help President Bush meet his stated goal of providing cleaner coal-fired power plants to help the country meet its future energy needs.

Clearly the use of coal as a fuel source is unavoidable for the near or foreseeable future. That's not to say that we need to live with the negative consequences of using more coal, and incorporating IGCC technology into new plants would be a significant step in the right direction.


I urge anyone reading this to get involved in some way in this issue. I am convinced we have a problem with global warming that's already started to make significant changes in our environment in many different places (as I go down to turn up the furnace in May ...), and will
continue to make changes that on the whole are not going to be for the better at all. We need to get very serious about doing something or we're going to leave a legacy for our children that we'll regret if we don't do more to try and fix it when we had the chance.


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