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Published on October 16th, 2011 | by Andrew


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

October 16th, 2011 by  

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

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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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

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  • Akbweb2

    You are correct, Bill. Apologies to all for the misstatment…

    The CO2, along with air, is captured, separated and condensed in the process…The captured air supplies the O2 for the fuel cell and the captured CO2 is condensed into liquid form and to be stored or sold for industrial and commercial use…

    Storage is another problem, and cost with its own issues that are being worked on…

  • David

    “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.”

    First, you failed to mention that reforming hydrogen from natural gas produces CO2.

    Second, CO2 + H2 in a fuel cell or any other process does not produce just water. The carbon has to be accounted for.

    • Akbweb2

      Yes, reforming H from methane does produce CO2…As I understand it, this will also be condensed into liquid form, along with the captured flue stack CO2 and removed for storage or resale for industrial and commercial use…Am working to confirm this…

      • Anonymous

        3.1 billion tons of CO2 from coal per year plus how many tons of CO2 from the hydrogen input?

        Please dig up the industrial use that re-sequesters all this carbon that we will be creating.

  • Ed

    As I read this post and the comments, I too am wondering if this technology (If it is scalable and works) will be a ‘good’ or ‘not so good’ approach to the huge problem of CO2 emissions from burning coal. Assuming that it does work and I can see how using the hydrogen in natural gas will provide the constituents to produce a hydrocarbon that fuel cells can then “burn” to produce energy and H2O. I see several problems.

    1. It requires “natural gas” (and I’m not completely convinced that all natural gas is actually a fossil fuel, but that’s a separate issue from this post) which is environmentally damaging to extract.

    2.If effective it would add weight to those who want to burn every last bit of stores carbon before making any type of transition to renewables. This is at the crux of the “political” debate that is raging at the moment.

    3. It STILL increases the net amount of CO2 being added to the atmosphere, unlike wind and solar.

    4. The only “silver lining” is that it could help mitigate the amount of CO2 being pumped into the air but if it slows down (and I’m sure that it would) the effort to move to ALL renewables then in total it will be, at best, a “push” as far as being a good thing. It would be better than doing nothing though.

    I would, like some of the other commenter, also like to see a more complete analysis of what the net benefits would be and how, exactly, does it work? Andrew said that he will be posting more. I will be waiting for his next post on this issue.


    • Akbweb2

      Rather than slowing down removables, I see it as potentially speeding them up…if it works and is cost-effective and were to be voluntarily adopted or mandated for all coal plants…

      It would not only put a price on coal power emissions, but remove most of them from being emitted directly into the atmosphere…

      • Anonymous

        Speeding up renewables, that’s some magical thinking.

        All this would do is to continue the lifespan of burning coal.

        I suspect this is a complete line of crap that someone is trying to feed us. (I’ll be glad to apologize if proved incorrect.) It’s a ‘bright-shiny’. a distracter to take some pressure off the coal industry so that they can continue to do business as usual for a few more years while this idea is researched.

        • Akbweb2

          Do you think they’re going to go out of business in a few years?

          • Anonymous

            I think coal will disappear from our grids. I suspect it will take years, perhaps a couple of decades.*

            But this technology is not a CO2 solution based on the information presented so far. All it is likely to do is to stall/slow the removal of coal from the grid.

            *A couple of decades is ‘worst case’, IMO. If we look at the recent incredible flooding the world has experienced along with the crop-destroying heat waves and pair that with what looks to be a summer melt-out of Arctic sea ice in the next few years, it may be that the 71% of Americans who now want something done about CO2 with be insistent that something be done about CO2. If that happens I can see the possibility of eliminating coal in well less than 20 years.

          • Akbweb2

            Years or a couple of decades, I’d welcome this outcome right alongside you…It may well be that nature compels not only people in the US, but in other countries, such as China, to rally for the same thing…Sure and it’d be best if we could act now and of our own accord, thereby ‘mitigating’ some of the wrenching social and economic disruptions and changes that will take place one way or the other…And that will take decades I believe…

          • Sdwesley3

            Uh… our first plant has been in existence since 2003 Akbweb2…. So, I don’t think so!

        • Sdwesley3

          Then Mr. Wallace, I will accept your apology in due time, contact me and we will demonstrate how it works and the scientists and engineers involved in this project. Oh, and about a pizza and a coke later …. in which when I am deemed correct, would you bother to pick up the tab. For I CERTAINLY will if I am incorrect! Deal?

          • Sdwesley3

            OH… BY THE WAY…Millions was spent on the World wide patent makes this a credible “Bright and shiny!” And…in now 3 countries, and going into Saudi Arabia, and the USA.

          • Anonymous

            If you can create a system that captures 100% of the carbon from coal plants and re-sequesters it safely/permanently for an affordable price I’ll buy you a case of Coke and a dozen pizzas.

            I’m not so excited about a system that captures the carbon from smokestacks and give is a second spin through ICEVs where it ends up as CO2 in our atmosphere. We don’t need to go that route.

            That’s a system which transforms our current dirty coal plants into benign sources of electricity and is cheap enough that companies readily install.

            Get that system up and running, get a verifiable track record and I’ll part with the bucks. I’ll even throw in a bouquet for your dinner table.

            Hell, I’ll send you a gallon of Schweddy Balls or any other Ben and Jerry’s flavor of your choice.

          • Sdwesley3

            I kinda like the pizza with ham and pineapple, Bob, you know the California way. Not into ice cream or any other free form of demeaning conversation…that is not us Bob! We run slim and trim, and we take the Co2 and fluctuate steam into the system during pyro-gasification, and produce methanol. Thats after we have filtered the PMs, NOx and So2 and heated our Co2 to 950 C. So, if your real and can hold a respectable conversation, we can share information with folks like you.

            Yet, if you are real and you represent a company that is interested in what we do, we can set you and another person from your company up for a visit. Visit us, and then we will provide the years of track record… Oh…but, be ready to sign an NDA first, that is if your company wants more info. By the way, we have a environmental attorney working with us… care to speak with her?

          • Anonymous

            The California way is artichoke hearts and goat cheese. Hummm….. It’s getting to be dinner time. Perhaps rather than the tofu stir fry I was planning, I’ll….

            If you’ve got a solution we’ll see US coal plants installing your hardware. That happens and successful gets carbon back underground where it belongs and I’ll spring for dinner at a first class restaurant. You can order the diet special if you like and use the desert money for the tip.

          • Sdwesley3

            Kinda like the CCS project in Canada or the Weyburn Project? I think there was some serious problems there Bob, don’t you? Have you asked Jane or Cameron Kerr how well they like their cases of soda pop shaken and placed underground? And by the way, we do capture 100% of the Co2 and produce renewable energy! So go now and eat your dinner, maybe it won’t be long and you’ll be eating Crow!

          • Anonymous

            Have you seen any data in which it has been proven that it is possible to capture 100% of the CO2 coming from a coal stack at an affordable price?

            I haven’t.

          • Sdwesley3

            Yes, Mr. Wallace, we have a lot of data! Our scientific foundation and the engineers can provide you with more technical data than you would be able to understand. A 20 MWatt bio-source system will produce 24 million gallons per/year of methanol in an 8 hour / 5 day work week At a Buck thirty six a gallon, that is a lot of methanol. Plus our Grade 5 oxygen is produced in the same time span, equals the amount of methanol. Think this way…. if we worked this 24/7… we would produce approximately 75 million gallons of methanol in a year. That is about 100 million a year in methanol. Plus, add oxygen and electricity funneled back into the grid… and we are set to get a good ROI for any investors or power company. Not to mention that they don’t have to worry about truckin much fly ash or bottom ash to the dumpsites or paying for it either. Got some stored Co2 you want to give to us?

          • Sdwesley3

            By the way…my turn to go eat some Tofu stirfry…. love the texture! If interested…contact us… would love to chat more.

          • Anonymous

            Give your data to the US coal industry. In a couple of years we’ll either know you’re for real because your gear will be added to coal plants or we will have forgotten about you.

            Lots of people think they have the next great idea. Few make it.

      • Ed

        My concern is that if it does work….then fine, lets mandate this for coal burning facilities. (if it doesn’t work or isn’t truly scalable) then lets move on. The article implies that H2O will be the “waste” from this technology so I’m a bit confused on that issue. I was confused from the start as to exactly how Co2 could be used in a fuel cell but the methane quoted seemed to fit that bill of where the H would come from.

        My concern if it does work is that it could give people the impression that switching to renewables wasn’t as critical an issue as it is. If it were to expose the true cost of CO2 then it would, as you note, be a good outcome. Bob W seems to agree on the “continuing to burn coal” claim.

        But my assertion that it still will cause a net gain in atmospheric CO2 is, I believe true and why this should only be thought of as a way to minimize our impact on the atmosphere (while) we are ramping up the technologies that produce NO CO2. This is where having a serious “ENERGY POLICY” that is geared toward solving this perplexing and profoundly dangerous problem (and not kowtowing to the vested interests that routinely bribe politicians) is an imperative. This is going to be a long hard climb and a multi-pronged approach will be required. (but I assume that everyone here already knows that).

        Cheers all and u2 AK,

    • Anonymous

      The hydrocarbon used in fuel cells will not have a H2O waste stream like hydrogen used in a fuel cell. It will release CO2.

  • So it’s really a high temp afterburner that incinerates the coal emissions using a natural gas supply that is converted for a hydrogen fuel cell,sounds good on paper but what will be the cost after the 3 year $3 million dollar study? What is the added cost for the natural gas use compared with the original coal only method,and of coarse show us the final emmisions before and after!

    • Akbweb2

      The questions you pose are some of the same questions the demo test seeks to answer, but info provided, such as previous tests on smaller scale, is that it will be significantly less than alternative means of removing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants…

  • Susan Kraemer

    “$3 million, is practically miniscule when viewed within the context of the overall scale and scope of current government clean energy support”

    Actually “current government clean energy support” is winding down, so that dribs and drabs for all kinds of good ideas is all that’s left. The scale of the Recovery Act clean energy investment – on a par with the Manhattan Project – is over.

  • Avocadocore

    Let me get this straight…
    1. You generate CO2 and H2 by reforming natural gas
    2. Presumably the CO2 is released to atmosphere…
    3. You use the H2 to convert a lesser amount of CO2 from a power station.
    4. In the process you use up a bunch of energy and therefore produce more CO2.
    Explain this to me again? How does this not increase CO2 emmissions?
    Really looking forward to seeing the technical report on this one!

    • Akbweb2

      The CO2 isn’t released into the atmosphere; it’s captured, liquefied and stored or sold for industrial and commercial purposes, such as making construction materials, enhanced oil recovery, others…

      • Anonymous

        Describe to us a industrial product which somehow sequesters the CO2 long enough to get it safely stored in a landfill. (Not exactly a good sequestration solution, but I’m cutting you some slack.)

        Give us some numbers which indicate that we could use the vast amount of CO2 produced by using coal and natural gas in this scheme. We’re talking billions of ton per year.

  • Anonymous

    Could we back up a moment?

    What is the net CO2 emission from this “idea”?

    It sounds to me like the CO2 is going to be captured from the coal smoke stack and then run through a process, along with natural gas, to run fuel cells. Right?

    And then the CO2 from both the coal and fuel cells go where? To strengthen our greenhouse blanket?

    And since this very complex system will most likely produce power at a price higher than simply burning coal and natural gas for electricity (while creating no net CO2 reduction) what is the purpose of all this tomfoolery – to distract us from shutting down coal plants for a decade or two while we “work out the bugs”?

    • Akbweb2

      The CO2 is not released into the atmosphere, or at least a target 90% or more is not…It would be captured and liquefied for storage or sale for commercial and industrial purposes…

      I see this as potentially speeding and causing renewables to be even more cost-competitive with coal on strictly dollars and cents terms…if it works and is cost-effective and were to be voluntarily adopted or mandated for all coal plants…

      It would not only put a price on coal power emissions, but remove most of them from being emitted directly into the atmosphere…

      • Anonymous

        Do you think that really a solution?

        We’ll still be extracting carbon from underneath the Earth and turning it into CO2 in coal plants.

        Somehow we’d capture 90% of that CO2 and use some of it to make a methane like substance which we would use in fuel cells. Those fuel cells would release CO2. No CO2 is sequestered in this process.

        And we’re somehow going to capture the CO2 coming out of the fuel cells and use it for commercial and industrial purposes. What possible use could we have for the huge amount of CO2 emitted by burning 1.1 billion tons of coal each year? Each ton of coal burned will produce 2.86 tons of CO2.

        We’re going to stick 3.1 billion tons of CO2 into soft drinks and then let it bubble into the atmosphere?

        I’m smelling weasels….

  • CO2 can not be used as a feedstock for fuel cells, says an environmental engineer friend who read this. So he’s baffled by the whole thing.

    • Akbweb2

      Happy to report that it appears your friend is in error…The first post on this provides a link to the original press release and I’m working on a follow-up that explains the system’s design and workings…

    • Anonymous

      I’m sure he sincerely is. But I think that’s why it’s considered a breakthrough. 😀

      But, believe me, I’m not an expert in the field and can’t judge if it would work or not. Look forward to learning more and would obviously be something if their system could scale! 😀

    • I would have to see some very surprising basic chemistry to be convinced that there’s energy to be extracted from CO2. (Because, y’know, you’ve already burnt it at that point.)

      • Anonymous

        People have been working to turn CO2 into fuel, taking the fairly simple molecule and turning it into a more complex one which could be burned either in in a conventional engine or in a fuel cell. It’s something like photosynthesis which plants perform when they intake CO2 from the atmosphere and create sugars which can be used to make ethanol. CH3CH2OH or C2H5OH are condensed structural formulas for ethanol. You can see the CO2 and H hanging out in them. I expect the natural gas input to this process is to pick up hydrogen to add to the fuel molecule.

        Best case, this give the CO2 from fossil fuel one more spin around the hamster wheel before we spew it into the atmosphere. We might get a bit more energy than if we had burned the natural gas to make electricity. I’d love to see a financial analysis showing the net gain, if any, for doing all this complex stuff rather than sticking natural gas in a fuel cell or using it in a gas peaker.

        Bad news, we would be continuing to extract sequestered carbon from beneath the Earth’s surface where it is currently stored as coal and natural gas, producing CO2, and pumping that CO2 into the atmosphere.

        Why bother with this foolishness? Wind power is already cheaper than coal. Solar will get there in a few years. Wind and solar will continue to get cheaper as we go along. Coal and natural gas will get more expensive.

        The hidden costs of burning coal are enormous. Really, really big.

        Let’s ramp up our renewables and shut down coal plants. Then we won’t need to concern ourselves about coal plant CO2.

        • Biodieselchris

          I like the one-more-spin idea. If you burn the coal (make power), then somehow reduce CO2 to ethanol (assuming this can be done — I have no idea what this article is suggesting the CO2 is turned in to), and then ship the ethanol to the gas stations replacing petrol-based gas, then you have reduced that amount of petrol from reaching the atmosphere.

          Wind and solar are good electricity producers, but electrical storage is still expensive and difficult. Liquid fuels are great energy storage mechanisms. You could eventually use the wind-everywhere solar-everywhere to produce the fuels from CO2 and still be net C nuetral in the atmosphere. So the technology, if it actually exists, would still be worth pursuing.

          • Anonymous

            One more spin is better than no more spins. But we have the technology to eliminate all the spins and leave the carbon safely sequestered.

            Cars spend about 90% of their lives parked. Plugging in takes little effort and we’ve got fairly effective plug-less charging. (It’s 80% – 90% efficient but could be improved.)

            Few people will need their EVs 100% charged all the time. EVs can soak up peak supply when the Sun is high or the wind is strong. Then they can stop charging when supply drops. This will greatly reduce the amount of storage needed. A recent study found that two million EVs would allow the Pacific Northwest to install an additional 10GW of wind generation without adding storage.

            Electric motors are so efficient that they are almost certain to win out over internal combustion engines.

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