Coal gasification: The clean energy of the future?

Coal gasification: The clean energy of the future?

Coal gasification plant

For this simple reason, it remains the world’s main source of power, providing a quarter of our primary energy and more than 40% of our electricity. And it will continue to do so for many years to come.

The challenge, then, is how to harness coal’s energy more cleanly. While global attempts to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) have stalled, a number of countries are looking at different ways to exploit their abundant coal reserves.

Not all are motivated by environmental concerns, but are driven instead by economics and a desire for energy independence.

Old and new

The main technology being used is coal gasification – instead of burning the fossil fuel, it is chemically transformed into synthetic natural gas (SNG).

The process is decades old, but recent rises in the price of gas mean it is now more economically viable. The US has dabbled in the technique, but China is going all out in a bid to satisfy its soaring demand for power and reduce its dependency on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The country’s National Energy Administration has laid out plans to produce 50 billion cubic metres of gas from coal by 2020, enough to satisfy more than 10% of China’s total gas demand.

Not only does it make economic sense, but it allows China to exploit stranded coal deposits sitting thousands of kilometres from the country’s main industrial centres. Transporting gas is, after all, a lot cheaper than transporting coal.

Coal gasification can also help address local pollution problems that have in recent months brought parts of the country to a virtual standstill.

But there are two big problems. First, coal gasification actually produces more CO2 than a traditional coal plant; so not only will China be using more coal, it will be doing so at a greater cost to the environment.

As Laszlo Varro, head of gas, coal and power markets at the International Energy Agency (IEA), says: “[Coal gasification] is attractive from an economic and energy security perspective.

“It can be a nice solution to local pollution, but its overall carbon intensity is worse [than coal mining], so it is not attractive at all from a climate change point of view”.

Great Plains Synfuels plant in US
Indeed a study by Duke University in the US suggests synthetic natural gas emits seven times more greenhouse gases than natural gas, and almost twice as much carbon as a coal plant.

The second problem is water use. Coal gasification is one of the more water-intensive forms of energy production, and large areas of China, particularly in the western parts of the country that would host new gasification plants, already suffer from water shortages.

Mr Varro says a recent IEA report concluded that coal and coal gasification plants would use “quite a substantial portion of the available water in China”.

Abundant reserves

Other countries are looking at different ways to get gas from coal. One method, particularly popular in Australia, is coal-bed methane, a process allowing access to coal deposits that are too deep to mine. Water is sucked out of the seam and the methane attached to the surface of the coal is freed and then collected.

China, Indonesia and Mozambique are looking at coal-bed methane, while the US and Canada also have abundant reserves.

Very little CO2 is emitted, but the process is not without controversy. Opponents highlight concerns about water contamination, land subsidence and disposing of waste water safely, while the water intensive process sometimes involves fracking.

And yet coal-bed methane has “fundamentally changed the dynamics of the gas industry in Australia,” according to Phil Hirschhorn, partner at the Boston Consulting Group’s energy practice in Sydney.

He says there are 200 trillion cubic feet of coal-bed methane resources in the country, with projects under construction to liquify and export 25 million tonnes of gas every year – equivalent to 10% of the entire global LNG market.

Clean access

A very different way to produce gas from coal is known as underground coal gasification (UCG), a process that has been around since the 19th Century but which has yet to become commercially viable on a grand scale – there is currently one working facility in Uzbekistan and pilot projects in Australia and South Africa.

Chinese lady wearing a mask in Beijing

According to Julie Lauder, chief executive of the UCG Association, the process is a “new way of harnessing the energy of coal without the usual environmental impacts”.

Technological developments and the rising price of gas mean UCG is now a feasible way of accessing the vast resources of coal that are too deep to mine, she says. Indeed, estimates suggest that as much as 85% of the world’s coal resources cannot be accessed through traditional mining techniques.

Opening them up to exploitation has potentially disastrous implications for CO2 emissions and climate change, but the industry says these resources can be accessed cleanly.

The process involves pumping oxygen and steam through a small borehole into the coal seam to produce a small and controlled combustion. Unlike coal-bed methane, therefore, the actual coal is converted from a solid state into gas. The hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and CO2 is then siphoned off through a second borehole.

According to Dr Harry Bradbury, founder and chief executive of UK clean energy company Five Quarters, this process results in 20% of the CO2 produced from traditional coal mining.

underground coal gasification projects

But his company is developing a process that requires no burning of coal, and which combines what Dr Bradbury calls “solid state chemical engineering” with releasing gases that are trapped not just in the coal, but in the surrounding rocks as well. And all of this takes place offshore, relieving concerns about water contamination and subsidence, he argues.

But the real advantage lies in the ability to capture the CO2. “We need to get more radical – we need to get to zero carbon,” Dr Bradbury says. “Full carbon capture and storage is absolutely crucial.”

This can take place through re-injecting the CO2 back into the coal seams, or by converting the carbon into products such as plastics and graphene, he says.

The UK government has established a working party to investigate the merits of UCG, undoubtedly excited by the vast resources of coal sitting under the North Sea. Other governments are equally keen to exploit new technologies to access their hidden coal seams.

The problem, of course, is that the process depends entirely on wider efforts to develop CCS, efforts that have, so far, singularly failed to find a solution.

Until one is found, any attempts to gasify coal underground will either remain theoretical or will exacerbate the already grave problem of CO2 emissions. And if recent efforts are anything to go by, we could be waiting a long time.

Source: BBC News

Firms named as Sellafield bidders

Firms named as Sellafield bidders

Fracking can help to slow global warming admit UN scientists… and so can nuclear power

Fracking can help to slow global warming admit UN scientists… and so can nuclear power

  • World’s leading experts say fracking will cut greenhouse gas emissions
  • UK should away from ‘dirty’ coal and contribute to saving the environment
  • Unexpected endorsement will be a welcome boost to David Cameron
  • Blow to green activists who are concerned about the effects of fracking

Climate scientists have backed Britain’s shale gas revolution – saying it could help to slow  global warming.

The world’s leading experts on climate change say fracking will cut greenhouse gas emissions and should be made central to the country’s energy production.

It will help the UK move away from ‘dirty’ coal and contribute to saving the environment, according to a report by the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report says it is ‘quite clear’ that fracking is ‘very consistent with low-carbon development’ and the technology could ‘significantly’ reduce emissions.

The unexpected endorsement from 235 eminent United Nations scientists and economists will be a welcome boost to David Cameron, who is a keen advocate of the new technology.

It is also a blow to green activists, who seek cuts in greenhouse gas emissions but are concerned about the effects of fracking.

Read more here

Source: Daily Mail

Nuclear News Round Up (7th – 11th Apr 14)

Japan approves energy plan backing nuclear power

Japan approves energy plan backing nuclear power

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses a High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament during the 68th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on 26 September, 2013 in New York City
Mr Abe wants Japan’s idled nuclear reactors to be switched back on
The Japanese government has approved an energy plan that backs the use of nuclear power, despite public anxiety after the Fukushima disaster.

The plan reverses an earlier decision to phase out nuclear power by a previous government.

It will set the stage for the government to restart some reactors, all of which are currently idled.

The move comes days after the first Fukushima evacuees returned to their homes inside the exclusion zone.

“We aim to opt for an energy supply system which is realistic, pragmatic and well balanced,” Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters.

Under the plan, the government would proceed with reactivating nuclear power plants that had met tough regulatory standards, Kyodo News agency reported, while also working to reduce nuclear dependence as much as possible.

The plan did not specify Japan’s future energy mix, but promised to increase its reliance on renewable energy.

Many in Japan distrust the government’s assurances that nuclear power is safe

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power during the time of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster, had promised to phase out nuclear power.

Until the Fukushima crisis, Japan had relied on nuclear energy for about 30% of its energy needs.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was elected in December 2012, has spent several months persuading lawmakers to back his stance.

The move is likely to prove unpopular with a wary public.

Source: BBC News

EU Decommissioning: Where does the private sector stand?

EU Decommissioning: Where does the private sector stand?

Much of Europe’s nuclear decommissioning is ultimately controlled by the public sector today, so how can private companies get involved in this multi-billion euro market?

Nuclear decommissioning and waste management is currently a public sector process in Europe, in which the private sector is not allowed to directly participate. Privately held companies and financial institutions that want to get involved need to lobby host governments first.

Transparency in procurement

But according to Al Goodwin, head of commercial projects and public procurement at Foot Anstey – one of the largest regional law firms based outside London – this has positive implications for the industry.

“In a European context, this makes the nuclear decommissioning market place subject to EU public procurement rules. Whilst this can load complexity and expense onto the process of pursuing opportunities, the transparency requirements around public procurement mean that many opportunities will be advertised, which opens up the market somewhat.”

Indeed, a simple search through, which lists all public tenders from across the EU and UK, shows opportunities for decommissioning and waste management engineering-support services as well as supply of containers, sought by the European Commission’s Ispra Joint Research Centre in Italy.

Moreover, the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) seems determined to get all types of businesses on board to help them benefit from the huge opportunities offered by the industry.

Read more at:

Source: Nuclear Energy Insider

ONR becomes Public Corporation

ONR becomes Public Corporation
ONR becomes Public Corporation

The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is established today as a Public Corporation, under the Energy Act 2013. This is a significant milestone in its journey to become a modern, responsive, independent regulator.

This change in status puts the UK independent regulator in a stronger position to fulfil its mission to provide efficient and effective regulation of the nuclear industry, holding it to account on behalf of the public. It comes on the same day that ONR publishes its new Enforcement Policy Statement and Annual Plan for the year ahead, outlining the key priorities for the organisation.

Chief Executive Officer John Jenkins said:

I am delighted that we have completed this transformation. It will make us stronger and ready to face a future where the nuclear industry is a key part of the UK’s energy mix. ONR is a first class regulator, and we recognise the scale and task ahead of us. Our change in status will provide us with the financial and operational flexibility we need to react quickly to changes in the nuclear industry, and attract and retain a nuclear-skilled workforce.”

ONR will retain the independent powers necessary to regulate the nuclear industry, but there will be a more consistent and predictable approach to regulation, and an expectation of continued commitment from industry to strong and visible regulation. The establishment of ONR as a Public Corporation provides the regulator with a stronger identity, which will help to increase public awareness of its role and responsibilities.

Dr Andy Hall, Chief Nuclear Inspector added:

“Our role as a regulator is critically important in ensuring that when it comes to issues of nuclear safety and security, we hold the industry to account. We are committed to publicly demonstrating how the decisions that we make are based on sound evidence and subject to proper scrutiny, which will ensure that we maintain confidence in the way that the industry is run.”

Department for Work and Pensions Minister of State for Disabled People, Rt. Hon. Mike Penning MP said:

“The establishment of ONR is a massive step forward in ensuring that the UK has a world class regulator and provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate that the UK is still at the forefront of the nuclear industry in providing energy for our future generations in a safe and effective manner.”

Baroness Verma of Leicester, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change added:

“Nuclear power provides high quantities of low carbon electricity and is therefore an important part of our overall energy mix, alongside renewables, clean coal and gas. We are already seeing the beginnings of a nuclear renaissance in the UK, which is good for the UK economy and employment and will provide secure supplies and affordable electricity. The Office for Nuclear Regulation plays a key role in ensuring that civil nuclear is managed safely and securely and the changes we have introduced through the Energy Act will ensure that ONR has the flexibility it needs to respond to a developing and growing nuclear industry.”

To support its new position, ONR has launched a new website today, carrying the new ONR brand, where it openly publishes details of its decisions relating to the sites that it regulates, including enforcement actions and corporate publications.

Source: ONR