'Clean' coal? What about the carbon?

TECO's new plant will emit tons of the climate change suspect.

By ASJYLYN LODER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 29, 2007

When plans for two coal plants derailed this summer amid concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, environmentalists hailed "a new day" while Gov. Charlie Crist proclaimed, "Good things are happening."

The word was out in Florida: King Coal was dead.

Then, barely a week after Crist's climate summit ushered in sweeping new policies to reduce the carbon dioxide believed to cause global warming, Tampa Electric filed an application with the state to build a 630 megawatt coal plant called Polk Six.

Its plans to expand its Polk Power Station are "aligned with the Governor's strategy," Tampa Electric claimed. The $2-billion "clean coal" plant would reduce emissions that cause acid rain and smog.

Yet Tampa Electric estimates that the plant will emit more than 4.1-million tons of carbon dioxide each year. That's as much carbon dioxide per megawatt hour as its Big Bend power station, which environmentalists point to as one of the dirtiest in the nation.

The increasing popularity of "clean coal" technology has opened a debate about where coal fits in a radically altered energy future, one defined by efforts to sharply curtail the carbon dioxide emissions believed to cause climate change.

Tampa Electric argues that its plans offer the best chance for capturing carbon dioxide. Yet it also concedes that capturing carbon is expensive, riddled with policy questions, beset by technical hurdles, and at least a decade away.

Despite those drawbacks, "clean coal" has made strange bedfellows of environmentalists and Bush administration energy officials, who cite the byword of global warming realpolitik: If the world is burning, we need everything.

"I don't think King Coal is dead," said Mike Fowler of the Clean Air Task Force, one such supporter. "King Coal may be regrouping."

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The U.S. Department of Energy calls coal the "workhorse" of the nation's power plants. It's cheap. It provides more than half of the electricity we use. One-quarter of the world's coal reserves are in the United States, making it an attractive alternative to foreign oil.

It's also filthy, laden with sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and, of course, carbon.

But it wasn't concerns about carbon that drove utilities to clean up coal. Acid rain and smog -- not global warming -- fueled those efforts in the 1980s, when climate change staked a limited claim in the public imagination.

Tampa Electric was one of the first utilities to pioneer the emerging technology. With more than $150-million in federal funding, Tampa Electric built a $600-million, 250-megawatt "clean coal" plant in Polk County, called Polk One. The innovation lies in the way Polk One removes pollutants, stripping them out of a pressurized gas stream in a 20-inch diameter pipe, instead of trying to "scrub" the coal smoke as it comes out of a massive stack.

Chuck Black, president of Tampa Electric, sat down recently for an interview at the company's nine-story Tampa headquarters. Explain in layman's terms, he was asked, just how much carbon comes out of the stack.

"You could fill a building this size in about five minutes," he answered grimly.

Many perceive the technology used at Polk One, a tongue-twister called Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle or IGCC, as the clear technology winner when it comes to carbon because the pressurized compressed gas makes it easier to capture.

If the carbon were captured at Polk Six, it would then be converted into a liquid, explained Mark Hornick, plant manager of Tampa Electric's Polk Power Station. Even then, the plant would produce daunting quantities: 4-million gallons of liquid carbon dioxide every day.

It leaves an obvious and troubling question: Where do you put all that carbon dioxide?

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Black's ascension through the ranks at Tampa Electric, where he has worked since 1973, has been tied in large part to his role in the success of Polk One. An engineer by training, Black, now 56, oversaw the plant's construction. It quickly became Tampa Electric's crown jewel, winning prizes, and attracting thousands of scientists, engineers, utility executives and politicians.

But the goal posts have shifted dramatically. Curbing acid rain and smog no longer defines success. The new threat is global warming, confronting the industry with a new set of challenges.

Tampa Electric said it is building Polk Six to be able to capture carbon emissions through "bolt-on technology."

But that technology doesn't yet exist, and a litany of unanswered questions remains. Black listed some of those unknowns:"If we spend a lot of money that our customers are paying for and we pump all this carbon dioxide into the ground in Polk County, if it leaks out of the ground some place like Hardee County, what have we accomplished? You have to be pretty sure it's going to stay where it's at. ... And then there's who liable for this stuff?"

Right now, carbon is permanently stored on a large-scale in just three locations in the world, one in Canada, another in Algeria and a third beneath the North Sea. Each site stores 1-million tons per year.

Polk Six is projected to produce four times that. What happens when every power plant starts looking for a place to store carbon?

Estimates vary on whether there's enough underground storage to fit centuries' worth of coal-produced carbon dioxide, or just a few decades'. Hornick and Black concede that it's a temporary solution - we'll simply run out of room.

Despite these unanswered questions, the technology has become an increasingly powerful antidote to coal's troubled image. Including Polk Six, 16 IGCC plants are under way throughout the United States; combined, with a total capacity of more than 10,000 megawatts, enough electricity to power 6-million homes, according to the Clean Air Task Force.

So far, said the task force's Fowler, few have concrete plans to capture carbon.

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In a conference room at the Polk Power Station, an inspirational poster reads, "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

Tampa Electric has re-created a future for coal. Even as Crist insists on steep cuts in carbon emissions, and environmentalists push for more renewable power, Tampa Electric has positioned itself to increase its reliance on one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet.

Repeating the company's oft-used refrain, Black said the company is willing to capture carbon emissions - if and when new laws require it. Why, Black asks, should its customers shoulder the cost of pioneering a technology that will benefit utilities throughout the world?

Despite the unanswered questions, many environmentalists support their plans. "If we build IGCC instead of pulverized coal, we'll be in a much better position to capture carbon 10 years from now," Fowler said.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has come out against Polk Six. Tampa Electric needs to do more for energy efficiency, and make firm commitments on carbon capture, the alliance argued to the Public Service Commission. The commission will hold a two-day hearing Oct. 10 and 11, and is tentatively slated to make a decision on Polk Six in late November.

The alliance supports the cleaner technology, and believes that carbon capture could be a "bridge" toward a low-carbon energy future, said spokeswoman Susan Glickman.

"But until you capture carbon, it's still another coal plant."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Asjylyn Loder can be reached at 813225-3117 or aloder@sptimes.com.