Friday roundup, May 2, 2014

May 2, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

India Taking on Industry

This April 15, 2014 photo, shows mining in progress at an open coat pit that belongs to Jindal Steel & Power Ltd. at Sarasmal village near the industrial city of Raigarh, in Chhattisgarh state, India. Each morning the ground shakes violently beneath Sarasmal and the neighboring village of Gare as mining crews blast the open coal pit with dynamite, sending clouds of coal dust into the air. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

The Washington Post had an interesting piece recently looking at state-level battles over coal and clean energy, reporting:

In state capitals across the country, legislators are debating proposals to roll back environmental rules, prodded by industry and advocacy groups eager to curtail regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gases.

The measures, which have been introduced in about 18 states, lie at the heart of an effort to expand to the state level the battle over fossil fuel and renewable energy. The new rules would trim or abolish climate mandates — including those that require utilities to use solar and wind energy, as well as proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules that would reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

Meanwhile, there were a bunch of interesting reports this week about efforts to make coal more clean … among them was this story from E&E reporter Manuel Quiñones:

Some top technology firms are expressing concern about U.S. EPA’s proposed rules to limit power plant carbon emissions, questioning whether they will truly encourage innovation.

Pro-coal groups, including the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, along with their allies in Congress, have questioned the agency’s plans to require carbon capture and sequestration for all new coal-fired power plants.

Beyond discussing whether CCS is “ready” for such a mandate, EPA critics have also said the agency’s proposal is making technology firms apprehensive about investing in advancing the technology.

“We’ve pulled way back on carbon capture [research and development],” said Kip Alexander, a power technology executive at Babcock & Wilcox Co. He cited “the way the rules are being written, the rules are being made” for the strategic decision to scale back.

Importantly, the story explains:

Alexander said Babcock & Wilcox ramped up its focus on technology to reduce power plant greenhouse gas emissions as policymakers increased their focus on global warming, especially when regulation-minded Democrats gained control of Congress and the White House.

“From say 10 years ago to four or five years ago, we were seeing signals with things like Waxman-Markey that carbon capture was going to be required for new coal, and we invested in first-generation solutions,” Alexander said in an interview.

Clean Coal Conundrum

In this Oct. 21, 2013 photo, the H2S and CO2 absorber vessels are shown in silhouette at the Mississippi Power’s Kemper County energy facility in central Mississippi near DeKalb. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Meanwhile, as Reuters reports:

Southern Co will take a $235 million charge in the first quarter and delay the startup of its $5.5 billion coal-gasification power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi, the company said in a filing with regulators on Tuesday … Southern has previously taken $729 million in charges related to more than $1 billion in cost overruns at the 582-megawatt Kemper County plant, one of only two integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plants in the nation.

From Republic Report, via Salon, we had this story this week:

Does burning coal, one of the most carbon-intensive fuel sources on the planet, contribute to climate change?

That simple question stumped the industry’s most prominent advocate, Robert “Mike” Duncan, at a Colorado mining conference last week. Asked twice by Republic Report, Duncan first said that a “lot of people believe” that coal causes climate change, before replying, “I’m not answering your question.”

Politico dug into what really might be driving the timing of EPA’s rulemaking agenda:

Newly released documents are fueling GOP questions about whether EPA put politics ahead of policy by publishing a controversial climate rule so late that it will allow red-state Senate Democrats to dodge a difficult vote.

The records also contradict the congressional testimony of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who told senators early this year that her agency had submitted the rule to the Federal Register “as soon as that proposal was released.”

The Daily Yonder profiled a photographer who found out the coal story in Appalachia is more complicated that most media would have the public believe:

Although this project has its roots in coal mining, it is not simply a story about coal. Rather, it is a story about a dying industry, what it is like to live in a mono-economy and the people that are impacted when that staple economic industry is no longer successful. My project is about one family and their struggles, but the story is not theirs alone. It is a story that is being played out through households across Appalachia, and more specifically West Virginia.

Coal is so often in the news, as we hear the political rhetoric surrounding its positive and negative impacts—that it keeps our lights on, that it’s dying, that it’s bad for the environment and is being replaced by natural gas. What you rarely hear about are the people that live these headlines and experience the impact of the environmental, economic and health impacts.

It is my hope that Living Coal can show people, specifically those who live outside of coalfields and outside of a mono-economy, what happens when an industry fails and there is nothing there to replace it. I hope that viewers can look beyond their pre-conceptions of the coal industry and this region to see the complicated impact it’s had on these families.

 Finally, Bill Howley had this fascinating piece on his blog, The Power Line:

The other day, I came across this video about the mining of lignite coal in huge strip mines in Germany.  While the information about lignite mining and the destruction of nearby towns (sound familiar?) was interesting, the most intriguing part of the video was the section about the experimental development of a mined out deep coal mine as a pumped storage facility.

Pumped storage is a long proven and relatively common way to store electricity using the stored potential of an elevated body of water.  This does not produce energy, it simply stores it, like a battery.  In times when electricity is abundant (and cheap) on the grid, electricity is used to pump water into a high reservoir.  When electricity is scarcer, and also brings a higher price, the water is released through a hydro-electric generator into a lower reservoir, which extracts the electricity back out of the water’s stored energy.  This process is almost always done in surface reservoirs, and depends on the natural elevations present in the surface terrain.

Now, engineers in Germany are researching the feasibility of using the large storage capacity of mined out coal and metal ore mines to serve as the lower storage reservoir in this kind of pumped storage process.  In some cases, the upper reservoir could be underground in a section of the mine closer to the surface.

One of the great aspects of this kind of project is that repurposed coal mines require a lot of retrofitting and construction work, as well as ongoing maintenance and operation.  Underground coal miners possess almost all the skills that would be needed to operate one of these facilities.  Why aren’t federal and state governments looking at what German researchers are doing?  Why aren’t US researchers assessing the feasibility of these kinds of projects in the US?

Yes, low US natural gas prices are keeping electricity prices temporarily depressed, so mass storage is not as cost competitive as it might be right now, that won’t last forever.  And the US coal and electricity industry is more concerned about their own shareholders than whether WV coal miners have good jobs.  And Germany has made a national commitment to renewable power that is still a distant dream in the US, although US renewable power is growing even without Germany’s sensible public policy.

Electricity storage is now a major focus of research worldwide.  Why not at least study whether pumped storage technology can keep underground coal miners working in the US?

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