Facing regulation and a changing energy picture, the coal industry is moving to clean up its act.
U.K. Coal, England's biggest coal miner, has signed an agreement with Peel Energy to determine whether or not wind turbines might be able to generate power at some of the company's coal mines.
The two companies have already identified 14 sites that could house 54 turbines. In all, these turbines could generate up to 133 megawatts of power. The sites will be evaluated over the next two years and, if some are deemed appropriate, the two companies will form joint ventures to develop the site.
For U.K. Coal, it's a way to extract more value from its real estate. Because these are existing coal mines, and many have been fairly well mined, the land doesn't have a lot of alternative commercial value. In all the company owns 46,500 acres of land, according to U.K. Coal.
Surrounded by water, the U.K. has fairly strong wind resources. Peel itself has 450 megawatts of onshore wind parks. Dong Energy and others are working on offshore wind projects in the southwest of England, which could generate over 1 gigawatt of power.
Meanwhile, General Electric and the University of Wyoming said this week that the two will build a facility in the Power River Basin area where they will experiment with GE's equipment for integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) power plants. This equipment effectively takes coal, turns it into a synthetic gas, and then exploits the gas to crank a turbine.
Gasifying coal allows utilities to capture more particulate matter before it gets in the atmosphere. GE has developed a 630-megawatt IGCC plant that produces 75 percent less sulfur oxide gases, 33 percent less NOx, 40 percent less particulate matter, and captures 90 percent of the mercury. It also requires 30 percent less water.
Coal, however, ranges in quality and the plants can be finicky. The research is expected to expand the range of coals that can be used in this manner. The facility is expected to be operational by 2012.
Coal generates around 49 percent of the electricity in the U.S., while Wyoming accounts for 40 percent of the coal burned in the U.S., according to GE. Put another way, Wyoming's coal produces 20 percent of the country's power, or about the same as the power provided the nuclear power plants combined or all that's produced by natural gas. Renewables like solar and wind account for less than 3 percent. Thus, every time you download scenes from "An Inconvenient Truth" on YouTube, you're probably burning coal somewhere.
Cleaning the soot out of coal is one of the major challenges facing energy companies. The U.S. is expected to follow Europe in enacting carbon regulations. Although some believe the Obama administration may not get around to implementing carbon regulations for a few years, several utilities expect regulations to come. Naturally, banks are already leery about funding coal projects.
In July, a court blocked a $2 billion dollar coal plant in Georgia from moving forward until and unless developers could limit carbon emissions (see Coal Plant Denied in Georgia).
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