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01 July 2014 | by Wojciech Kość

Clean Coal or Hot Air?

Clean Coal or Hot Air?
Unless environmentalists seize power in Poland, there’s little to indicate that coal will go away as a staple energy source anytime soon. Can its emissions intensity be reduced at least?

From the Cleantech magazine's Spring 2014 issue.

The biggest news recently that had to do with the Polish coal didn’t actually concern coal. In January 2014, Poland confirmed its ambitions to develop nuclear power. Two plants, 3000 MW each, will go online in one of preselected locations in northern Poland, the first plant by 2024, the second one in 2035.

According to analysis of Poland’s long term energy mix, published in 2013 by the Department of Strategic Analyses (DAS), a body working for the Prime Minister’s office, the nuclear option is the only feasible one if Poland wants to reduce its CO2 emissions at an - arguably - agreeable cost.

There are questions, however, if Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE) will be able to raise €9.5-14.3 billion of financing for the nuclear project. Apart from being the leader of the nuclear project, PGE is also involved in the €2.6 billion project to build a coal fired power plant in Opole.

Without nuclear power, coal will likely remain Poland’s chief energy source. In the DAS analysis, the continued use of coal forms the basic scenario for Poland for decades to come (see chart). If this is the case, the issue of emissions from this fossil fuel comes to the fore.

Krzysztof Stańczyk is a professor of chemistry and environmental engineering at the Central Mining Institute and head of research at Clean Coal Technology Center (CCTW). CCTW is a research and development unit based in Katowice, the main city of the Polish coal mining hub in Upper Silesia, southern Poland. There, the pressure to find ways to have burning of coal for energy less emissions intensive is felt in particular.

Mr. Stańczyk says that some technologies to reduce emissions from coal are pretty much available now. “We’re talking on-the-ground installations that could gasify coal in facilities of capacity of 400-500 MW,” Mr. Stańczyk said.

Coal gasification is a process that turns organic or fossil based carbonaceous materials into carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. This is achieved by reacting the material at temperatures exceeding 700 °C, without combustion, with a controlled amount of oxygen and/or steam. The resulting gas mixture is called syngas, from synthesis gas or synthetic gas.

For on-the-ground coal gasification installations, coal will still have to extracted and fed to reactors, but work is under way, however, to eliminate actual extraction and work to turn coal into gas directly in the seam. “We could use the underground gasification of coal to produce energy in small 20-30 MW installations, but this is of course not the required scale yet,” Mr. Stańczyk said.

When asked about carbon capture and storage (CCS), Mr. Stańczyk is skeptical. “First of all, I think it’s better to use CO2 to produce, for example, carbamide or polycarbonates, rather than dump it underground in huge amounts to uncertain consequences,” Mr. Stańczyk said.

There also is a move towards reduced emissions from coal use via building new coal fired power plants.

“New technologies allow to burn coal with with CO2 emissions reduced by 30 percent in comparison to old technologies. If all new power plants are developed using new technologies, emissions from greenhouse gases will drop significantly,” said Maciej Kaliski, head of mining department at the ministry of economy, as quoted by specialist coal industry paper Trybuna Górnicza in January 2014.

But according to Michał Wilczyński, former chief geologist and deputy minister of environment in the 1990s, burning coal for energy is slowly but unmistakably becoming a thing of the past.

“The Polish economy is using less and less coal as it’s becoming more efficient. Coal production is falling, also under pressure from cheaper imports,” Mr. Wilczyński said.

There’s also pressure from the EU to curb emissions and end public help for non-profitable coal mines. Finally, Mr. Wilczyński adds, there are direct environmental effects of coal mining and burning of coal, like deterioration of air quality that is having a negative effect on human health.

“The money paid into coal and coal fired energy generation sectors, as well as health costs, are not part of the equation, therefore coal can pass as cheap energy source,” Mr. Wilczyński charged.

“If you want to have a clean coal fired energy generation, the industry needs to tackle issues like getting rid of mercury and arsenic from the process, engage in proper handling of ashes, sewage and CO2, reduce aerosols output or water use,” Mr. Wilczyński said. The problem is, he adds, these issues are not being tackled effectively, either because further research and innovation are needed or their cost is prohibitive.


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