The Salt Lake Tribune published a very interesting article on April 18, 2006 titled Coal energy plants face lost sales if they ignore technology advances.
I discovered the article by accident; I have a daily Google search that looks for “new nuclear power plants” and all of those words were in the story. When I saw the headline, I thought that there was the opportunity for another “Smoking Gun” story for Atomic Insights where coal advocates specifically warn about the impact of nuclear power technology on their financial well being.
As it turns out the story talks more about the competition between western coal and eastern coal. In the past ten to twenty years, coal from Wyoming and Utah as become quite popular as a fuel for power plants that needed to meet air emission limits even though it tends to be a higher moisture content, lower energy content fuel. Its advantage has rested in the fact that it contains less sulfur and allows plants to continue to meet emission limits without the installation of new technologies for scrubbing or otherwise removing the sulfur from the emission stack.
A new technology called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) is changing that equation. This method of burning coal removes the sulfur in a process that occurs before burning when the coal is converted into a gas. In addition, this process produces less carbon dioxide per unit of power because it allows the more thermally efficient gas turbine combined cycle that can reach overall efficiency of 50-58%.
With this process, the higher energy content of eastern coals becomes more valuable, making western coal less attractive.
There are some very useful statistical details in the story that show just how important the coal industry is to both Utah and Wyoming from the point of view of jobs, revenue and contributions to the tax base. It is no wonder that Orin Hatch has such a strong position against allowing the temporary storage of used nuclear fuel in his state – allowing the nuclear industry to thrive would threaten one of his state’s most important industries.
I personally believe that the best way to use the energy content in both eastern and western coal is to convert the fuel to a liquid fuel that is essentially very clean diesel fuel. The process requires the addition of large quantities of heat, the best source of which would be a nuclear reactor, preferably an Adams Engine 🙂