San Antonio's Southwest Research Institute Lands $3 Million to Design Cleaner Coal Plant
By Randy Diamond
August 13, 2019 - San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute landed a $3 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to design a cutting-edge coal power plant that would emit almost no carbon dioxide.
The plant, which would be built at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, would use pure oxygen to reduce pollutants normally associated with coal, said Joshua Schmitt, the SwRI research engineer directing the project.
Southwest Research Institute - San Antonio, Texas - Overall view of San Antonio laboratories of Southwest Research Institute.
Schmitt said the oxygen would be combined with coal into a stream of carbon dioxide and water inside a combustor. He said the coal and oxygen would then chemically react, creating a hot gas to boil the water and make steam that would push a turbine that generates power.
“One of the most exciting aspects of oxy-fuel combustion is its potential for power generation with almost no CO2 emissions in the atmosphere,” Schmitt said “This is a very future-looking technology.”
However, some environmentalists say the funding would be better spent on developing wind and solar projects. Using the technology for a large-scale power plant could easily cost $1 billion, said Chrissy Mann, the Austin-based senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
“It seems more like an interesting science project rather than a solution,” she said.
Mann said a full-scale coal plant would still produce coal ash as traditional coal-fired plants do, polluting groundwater and surface water.
Mann said it doesn’t make sense to invest in coal when renewable energy can be less expensive and non-polluting.
A report by the Environmental Integrity Project in Washingtonian, D.C., in January found the groundwater around the 16 coal-fired plants in Texas contained pollutants unsafe for human consumption, including lithium, arsenic, boron and cobalt.
While Schmitt said he is not an “environmental engineer,” the new technology should reduce the accumulation of coal ash found in older coal plants, he said.
Schmitt said the major benefit of the oxygen-rich combustion is that it results in pure carbon dioxide, which instead of being released into the atmosphere can used to create carbonation for soft drinks or refrigeration.
He said the problem with renewable energy is that it is not always reliable for energy generation — for example, when cloud cover prevents solar generation.
The pilot plant is scheduled for completion in 2020 and will compete with five other projects aimed at supporting the coal industry. The Trump administration has made helping the coal industry a major energy goal, though the Obama administration also pushed for cleaner coal projects.
In addition to the DOE grant, SwRI, a nonprofit, is receiving an additional $760,658 from industry and university partners. They include: Itea, Sargent & Lundy, the Electric Power Research Institute, General Electric Global Research and the University of Wyoming.
The largest clean coal project in the U.S., the Kemper power plant in rural Mississippi, turned out to be a major fiasco. After spending more than $7 billion on a plant that never functioned properly, the Southern Co. in 2017 abandoned its multi-year plan to burn coal at the facility and switched to natural gas.
Randy Diamond covers energy and manufacturing in the San Antonio and Bexar County area.