Coal Plant + New Fuel Cell System = 90% Reduction in CO2 Emissions?

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Back on Oct. 3, I wrote a postabout the Dept. of Energy awarding $3 million for Connecticut’s FuelCell Energy to carry out a three-year project that entails evaluating the use of the company’s Direct Fuel Cells (DFC) to efficiently and cost-effectively separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal-fired power plant emissions and use it to produce clean electricity. Readers’ comments prompted me to dig deeper into the project’s aims, how the system is designed to work, and the implications of its potential success or failure.

In doing so, Schwartz MSL’s Rob Skinner arranged, and sat in on, a four-way conference call during which I spoke to Tony Leo, FuelCell Energy vice president of applications engineering and new technology and Kurt Goddard, who is in charge of investor relations for the Hartford, Ct.-based designer and manufacturer of fuel cell systems and technology.

Before moving on into the nitty-gritty and meat of the technology – which I’ll do in a separate post to come shortly – I’ll cut straight to the chase, at least as far as I see and understand it.

If successful, FuelCell Energy’s system will separate and capture 90% or more of the CO2 emitted from a coal-fired power plant’s flue stream. The CO2, along with hydrogen ‘reformed’ from natural gas, will be used to drive a fuel cell that produces clean electricity that will add to the plant’s energy output. Nitrogen oxides (NOX), another potent greenhouse gas, will also be captured, but destroyed in the process. Emissions from the fuel cell system: water.

Now if FuelCell Energy’s system does indeed work, it will eliminate virtually all the coal-fired power plant’s CO2 emissions, as well as its NOX emissions. Plus it will add to the plant’s now virtually CO2-free electricity output. That’s a pretty potent “double-whammy. In fact, I’d have to agree with FuelCell Energy’s Tony Leo when he said that the system, if proven on a commercial scale, “would be a game-changer.”

Weighing the Costs and Benefits

Now, there are a lot of other issues to do with using coal to generate electricity, primarily related to the mining of it, that cause many, including me, to not only come out against increasing coal-fired power generation, but to support using cleaner, more socially and environmentally sustainable means of producing electricity as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, I believe projects such as this merit government funding and public support. Take into account that this is no ‘pie in the sky,’ ‘shoot for the moon’ system design or technology. FuelCell Energy has proven that it works, just not at commercial scale. That’s where, and why, the DOE stepped in.

The outlay, at $3 million, is practically miniscule when viewed within the context of the overall scale and scope of current government clean energy support and incentives, much less to say when compared to the amount and scope of fossil fuel energy industry subsidies.

Then there’s the potential ‘pay-off’: projects such as this offer potentially tremendous benefits, both in terms of economics and environmental health and safety. That’s particularly true, and over the near-term, when it comes to assuring our energy security, significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating our out-sized contribution to climate change and global warming.

Image courtesty of US Energy Information Administration

Coal-fired electricity generation accounted for 43.3% of US electricity production through July, 2011, according to the US Energy Information Administration’s October report, yet accounted for 81% of total US CO2 emissions from electricity generation in 2010, according to the US Environmental Integrity Project’s annual 2010 CO2 report.

If FuelCell Energy’s system proved successful, and if such systems were installed at all the coal-fired power plants in the US, we would produce that 40-odd percent of nationwide electricity and cut the resulting CO2 emissions by a whopping 90%, which, roughly speaking, translates into a 70% or more reduction in total CO2 emissions from electricity generation. And this might be done within a relatively short time frame.

That’s assuming we could muster up sufficient quantities of the materials and energy inputs required to manufacture, install and run a sufficient quantity of such fuel cell systems. To my mind, that’s a goal, and a clean energy technology, that at this stage is well worth pursuing and funding.

Blazing a Trail Out of the ‘Hydrocarbon Man Era’

Again, dont’ get me wrong, I report and write for Clean Technica. I’m all for developing a clean, more distributed, renewable energy infrastructure that’s more sustainable and much less socially and environmentally damaging as fast as we possibly can.

Yet as fast as wind, solar, geothermal,ocean energy and biofuels are growing, or could grow, it’s going to require decades before they account for a majority of the energy the US consumes. Whether or not that’s even achievable given our current energy consumption and rate of growth remains an open question. The flip side of the coin, reining in our demand for energy, is a ‘different dog with a whole ‘nother set of fleas.’

Some commentators have likened the effort it will take for us to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and blaze a trail out of ‘the era of hydrocarbon man’ before nature’s constraints force us to do so to the nation-wide mustering of resources and effort Pres. Kennedy launched in the 1960s. That resulted in putting a man on the moon. One said it would be more like ‘establishing a human colony on Pluto.’

That’s the scope and scale of the change, and challenge, we’re facing when it comes to energy. Unfortunately, we’re decades late in fully recognizing and accepting this as a reality and getting serious about taking the steps necessary to make such a transition. It’s going to require decades more to do so.

Given the current political climate in the US, it’s by no means clear that ‘we’ collectively, as a nation, have even accepted the problem and challenge for what it is, much less committed ourselves to enacting the policies, restructuring our markets and industries, or making the lifestyle changes that will greatly improve our chances of successfully doing so.

Coal or No Coal?

Coming back around to the DOE’s funding of FuelCell Energy’s pilot coal-fired power plant CO2 capture and clean energy production system: if it works, I believe that it would indeed be a ‘game-changer.’

Would it solve all the problems associated with using coal to produce electricity? By no means. But it would get us halfway there, so to speak, in that it would eliminate 90% or more of a coal-fired power plant’s CO2 emissions, as well as NOX emissions.

A lot would be learned by testing FuelCell Energy’s system. The concept and system design also suggests other avenues of R&D to pursue in our search for cleaner, more sustainable energy sources that we can implement widely in the near term as we continue to move towards ever cleaner, more sustainable renewable energy resources, both now and over the longer term.

For example, could this, or a similar, fuel cell system design be used in tandem with coal-bed methane production to produce clean electricity? This approach might address some of the key environmental issues associated with the mining end of using coal to produce electricity.

After all, though they produce much, much less in the way of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions, we can’t manufacture solar cells and modules or wind turbines without mining either. These activities come with their own environmental health and safety, greenhouse gas emissions and energy security issues, though, again, to a much smaller degree.

It also suggest the possibility of making greater use of biogas from waste streams as a source of CO2 for such fuel cell systems. Such systems are already up and running, as at an Orange County, California wastewater treatment facility.

Taking this another step, renewable power systems, such as wind farms, can be used to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen, which can be stored and later used by fuel cells to produce clean electricity on demand, thereby addressing one of the biggest problems associated with making greater use of intermittent renewable energy sources, smoothing out and matching supply and demand.

This is also happening today. Canada’s Hydrogenics last week won a contract from the German city of Herten, a hydrogen and renewable energy hub, to install a fuel cell system that will do just that.

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