Coal plant pitches CCS project, burning coal waste in Pittsburgh

An innovative coal project (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Editorial Board) Jan 12, 2021

The nation’s domestic coal industry is in serious trouble, crippled by the dual economic pressures of stringent pollution-control regulations on coal-fired power plants and the emergence of an overabundant supply of cheaper and more environmentally friendly natural gas.

The industry is not going down without a fight, however, as evidenced by Consol Energy Inc.’s proposal to design a unique, state-of-the-art power plant that could run on coal waste while capturing climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions and storing them underground.

The project is one of four that will split nearly $80 million in federal funding in hopes of coming up with a design that could be economically feasible.

Consol’s plan is to build a 300-megawatt plant near its Pennsylvania Mining Complex in Greene and Washington counties, the largest underground mining complex in North America. The innovative plant would run on a range of fuels, including 3 million tons of wet waste coal — waste from mined coal that it currently sent to disposal ponds — as well as wet biomass such as grasses and young trees.

The plant would also be outfitted with a system to remove 97% of carbon dioxide from the exhaust, compress it and pipe it into wells that would inject the gas into deep underground rock layers for permanent storage. As part of its project study, Consol said this could be the impetus for creating a “regional sequestration hub” in southwestern Pennsylvania that would accept CO2 from other industrial facilities for underground storage.

While all of this sounds promising for a struggling coal industry, keep in mind that it is only a proposal that is still in the design stage. Consol estimates if it comes up with a workable design, construction could begin by 2024 and the plant could be operational by 2027. But it won’t be cheap — current estimates peg construction costs at $2 billion — and the industry is quickly running out of time.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has forecast that no new coal-fired power plants would be built in the country through 2050. Consol’s biggest customers, the remaining coal plants, are quickly closing or switching to other fuel sources. In Pennsylvania, there were 23 coal-fired plants in 2004; today there are only six, two of which are already committed to switching to natural gas and the others are expected to close within 10 years.

The Department of Energy is making the right call in funding research and development of unique projects such as this as a way to explore all options for maintaining the nation’s electric grid. This may not prove to be an economically feasible option for the coal industry, but it’s worth the effort to see where such innovation and exploration leads.

First Published January 11, 2021, 10:00pm