Coming Clean on Coal?

Coming Clean on Coal?

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“It is always cheaper to pollute. Why do you think we’ve been doing it for so long? It is definitely cheaper to just burn coal and emit. But when people get sick of it and they outlaw it, you have to look at alternatives.” Albert Lin, CEO EmberClear

The following feature is based on remarks by Albert Lin at a Science Café in Raleigh, NC, on October 18, 2011. The Café was organized by NCMNS and ETOM as part of the project’s year-long education and outreach initiative.

Roy Campbell, VP Exhibits, NCMNS:
Tonight’s speaker is Albert Lin of EmberClear. This is a company and a technology that Albert has formed which is working around the world in several locations, particularly in China and in the U.S., to address the issue of energy consumption and energy production. There’s over a billion people clamoring for energy, electrical energy, and the prime source for that energy is coal.

Coal has quite a legacy of emitting CO2. It’s one of the major fossil fuels. Petroleum and coal are the major generators of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is leading to global climate change. So Albert Lin and EmberClear are trying to address that issue as coal is the leader. I’m sure that tonight, probably, our energy is being derived from coal. Even though we have nuclear energy here in North Carolina, coal is still the mainstay of energy production in our state.

Billions of people are still, rightly so, clamoring for new energy to improve their life, to improve their economies. But this demand on coal is precipitous. It’s just out-climbing all other forms of energy. Somehow, that has to be addressed. Albert has put his mind and his verve and his commitment toward trying to improve the outcome of this consumption of coal that’s needed.

AlbertWith no further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Albert Lin of EmberClear.

Albert Lin:
Thank you, Roy. Now, I want to give some background to today’s discussion that should foster some of our interaction. I’ll tell you a little bit about what our plans are at EmberClear. But, before I do that, I have to give you a little background on the state of the industry of coal. Then, talk to you a little bit about China and what has been going on in China so that all of this makes sense.

Coal: The Once and Future Fuel?

Coal is not going to go away, despite the fact that many thought it should. The fact of the matter is, over the last 10 years, coal consumption has doubled.

The thing to realize is that coal is not going to go away, despite the fact that many thought it should, and it is a nineteenth century fuel, and perhaps it would just quietly disappear. The fact of the matter is, over the last 10 years, coal consumption has doubled. Nine billion tons this year. It was only four and a half billion tons 10 years ago. We have to ask ourselves, “How did we get there?” and “What can we do about it?” Because that’s a fact.

There’s only really two main uses of coal in the world. The main use is to create heat which turns into power, generally electricity. Then the second use, which is much smaller, is to make steel. Both of those, as an industry globally, are at all time highs. Now, where is this growth coming from? It’s not coming from the United States. It’s not coming from Western Europe or the usual large economies that we think about. It’s coming from the developing countries… China, India, Brazil.

China, India, and Brazil have installed coal plants that equal all of the solar that has ever been put into production.

They are installing coal plants at such a rapid rate that, in 2009, they installed new coal plants that equal all of the solar that has ever been put into production in the history of solar. So we haven’t even caught up to coal with 20 plus years of solar and all the strong investments and deployments that have been going on in solar lately.

Then you can also look at wind. Everyone’s trying very hard to make wind a great alternative. But, again, the amount of deployments of wind still has not even caught up to what is the new additions of coal.

And here’s the real problem from an economic standpoint. Each coal plant that is built is designed to last about 50 years. Chances are, the countries that are putting these plants will run them longer. So what we’ve done is, we’ve increased the worldwide dependence on coal by four and a half billion tons for at least the next half century.

That’s the backdrop of what got me into the industry, because I think that there’s something that has to be done in the energy community. That is, to spend a lot more time in respecting the science and the economics that are involved in energy.

Inconvenient truths about Coal

And when it comes to coal, I think we have to respect the fact that, if we don’t address the coal issue, then we really can’t address or get any of the climate objectives anybody is talking about. Reducing CO2 when half the world’s emissions are coming from coal but pretending it’s going to go away is just not going to happen.

Reducing CO2 when half the world’s emissions are coming from coal but pretending it’s going to go away is just not going to happen.

So that’s one thing we had to do. We had to respect the science and the math that coal is now so large. It’s the largest and fastest growing energy source in the world. It’s also the most practical point of CO2 emissions that anyone can go after. Because, if you look at the number two generator of CO2, which is transportation fuels, it’s not economically feasible or likely to be implemented if we wanted to trap all the CO2 or capture it on every car.

So that’s why I think, from a practical standpoint, you have to focus on these large power plants. Many of them are new. But you have to show a road map for the industry to be able to make coal a much more efficient and low emission fuel than it ever has been before.

China & Energy

AlbertNow I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about the history of China. China is a country that has a lot of coal, but they don’t have a lot of oil. They don’t have natural gas. They’re somewhat landlocked. But yet, they are building all the instruments and tools that use all the fuels they don’t have. They make all these natural gas appliances and ship them all over the world. They make all these electric appliances. They’re doing all these things, but yet, all they have is coal.

What China did was, they took well-known chemistry and technology that allows you to convert coal into all sorts of other products. If you didn’t know, you can take coal and, through a chemical reaction, you can turn coal into a lot of other useful fuels. You can turn it into fertilizer, which China did for the better part of the last 30 years to feed its gigantic population. You can turn it even into gasoline and diesel.

Most people don’t know that the Chinese Air Force runs on aviation fuel made from coal.

Now, why doesn’t anyone else do that? Because it was completely uneconomic. China did it for its own sovereign security and energy independence. It absolutely could not trust its neighbors and its other supply alternatives, so they learned to do it all themselves. It was uneconomic until oil hit about $50 a barrel. But when they started on this technology, oil was in the teens, U.S., per barrel. Nobody ever thought it would get to $50, which is roughly the breakeven point, where you would prefer to convert coal into these fuels.

But now, we all know, today (October 18, 2011) oil was almost $90. It was, like, $88 a barrel. It’s been well over $100 now, and now the world is starting to conclude that perhaps oil is at least going to stay above $50. That’s ushering in a whole different industry and perspective about what you can do with coal. Because, all of a sudden, this chemistry on turning coal into these other fuels is becoming very interesting, and it’s becoming more economic. That’s where EmberClear comes in.

The biggest polluter and the world’s cleanest utility?

We are the only U.S. company that has a formal relationship with the largest polluter in the world.

The largest polluter in the world is Huaneng Power. Huaneng used to be called China Power. China Power was broken up, just like we broke up Ma Bell, the phone company, into little, regional Bell operating telephone companies because we felt it was too big to run efficiently. China did the same thing with China Power. They felt it got too big.

I think everybody here is familiar with Duke. Duke Energy is the largest free world utility. After they broke up China Power into five, Huaneng is the biggest of the five. Huaneng is still 40 percent larger than Duke, biggest company in the world, single company generates more power than the entire country of Canada or the United Kingdom, which is the fourth largest economy in the world. They make a lot of CO2.

But they also are state-owned, and they’re under a directive to also be one of the cleanest companies in the world. So at the same time that they’re the world’s biggest polluter, they have invested the most in some of the cleanest technologies. They are going to end up becoming one of the biggest solar electricity. They will probably be, by the end of this year, the largest wind utility in the world. They are working on biofuels. And they’re working on all these technologies to make coal a far lower emissions energy source.

The US-China Business Opportunity

Because they don’t know how to do business, really, outside of China—they do OK in Africa, they do OK in Australia, but generally, the Chinese government and these technologies were never meant for export—this has become a tremendous opportunity for Western companies. Because they need to learn how to take this technology out of China for the benefit of the world, because they are the ones who spent the most.

There’s no magic to it. It’s all science and engineering. They did it for 40 years. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s how come they do it better and cheaper than anyone else. Now we have this tremendous opportunity to take this technology and put it out to the rest of the world.

GreenGen, #1 in the world

Albert There’s a project called GreenGen which you can Google and learn all about. That’s China’s near zero emissions coal plant. It makes electricity. It almost has no emissions. They copied the United States. The United States had a program called FutureGen in 2003. FutureGen did not work for a lot of political reasons and a whole bunch of other cost problems.

But, they gave a road map on how public-private cooperation could work to accelerate bleeding edge technology into the marketplace. The Chinese copied it. Europe copied it. Australia copied it. But only China has come through and executed. And by the end of the year, this plant will be up and running.

In the United States, we’re building the next version of GreenGen. We call it Good Spring. It’s in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It will be the United States’ first near zero emission coal-based power plant. The United States, it’s very hard to permit anything using coal. The only reason why we could do it is because we have emissions that are lower than natural gas.

We are the only power plant that got permitted, for the last three and a half years, in the United States based on coal.

And the best news is we don’t need a subsidy. Because I think the subsidy model has not been a good thing for the world, because it discourages people from investing in things, because they think it’s a one off that only works if somebody else is footing the real cost. We can do this economically. That’s sort of my last point I want to leave to you, that the ability to do all of this is much more economic than you think.

Capturing the CO2

The last technical thing I want to talk to you about is, what do you do with the CO2 from these plants? I’ll give you a quick chemistry lesson on what happens. You take the coal, and you’re going to convert it to a synthetic natural gas. Then you’re going to pull out the elements that create CO2 before you burn the gas in a standard turbine. That’s the rough way that we are making electricity.

Once you have that CO2, it is a concentrated, pure form, because we don’t burn coal. We do a technology called gasification. It’s a chemical reaction that breaks down the coal and lets you reassemble all the pieces of the coal, and that’s how the Chinese make all those other fuels. They break down the coal, and then they reassemble it into something. We re-assemble it into a synthetic gas. We pull out all the CO2, and then you can decide what you want to do with that CO2.

Albert But the CO2 is probably not what you think. Most people think of CO2 as a gas that floats around in the air. And, if you pump it underground and move it somewhere, it could leak and do all sorts of crazy things. The reality is, the science of sequestration today is far more advanced, because the CO2 comes out under intense heat and pressure and is actually a liquid. We pump it so far underground that it’s well below the water table.

Underneath our plant is a lot of sandstone and porous rock. We inject the liquid into the rock. The pores absorb the liquid CO2, which then creates a chemical reaction with the rock to form concrete. It becomes a solid, and the CO2 disappears forever. That’s the science that the Lawrence Livermore Labs and the Lawrence Berkeley Labs and others have been studying and working on. It’s far more economic than, I think, people realize.

Al Gore’s idea that coal would be too expensive to address CO2, in 2006, seemed like it was the right analysis. But fast forward five years and technology has advanced so far, and the costs have come down so much that, actually, his numbers are way off. It is probably 60 to 70 percent cheaper than he thinks. That’s what makes it economically viable.

So with that, I would love to take your questions and have a discussion about your views and where you think we can go as an industry.

ETOM will add some of the lively Q&A in future installments here in ISSUES. If web visitors have questions about Clean Coal, China and Albert’s work, ASK ETOM.

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