Coal is still part of the answer

The Fayette Power Project (FPP) is a power plant outside of LaGrange, Texas which uses coal-fired boilers to create steam for turbine generators.  The FPP is a vital part of the energy portfolio of Central Texas.  Of the ~1,600 MW capacity that serves as year-round baseload power, Austin Energy owns 600 MW.  Running at “full steam”, the plant goes through about 1,000 tons of coal every hour to keep up with demand.  The plant keeps about an 80 day supply of low-sulphur coal shipped on trains from Wyoming as emergency backup.  Operators constantly monitor emissions, operation parameters, weather conditions, and production output as managed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).  Everything from the water discharge temperature to the 6-min average opacity reading recorded by the hundred thousand dollar CEMS (continuous emissions monitoring system) is displayed at the helm.

The FPP was recently recognized as a “gold level” facility under the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ’s) Clean Texas Program.  This honor is a result of the plant’s efforts in going beyond the regulatory requirements to reduce NOx and SOx levels. In fact, the plant is currently panning a shutdown of two of the three generators in order to install a new scrubbing system which will remove ~95% of SOx emissions, an increase from their current ~85% control efficiency.  This retrofit is budgeted to cost about $240 million, split between Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).

As much as the country, and indeed the world, is trending towards renewable energy and the promise of cleaner power, it is undeniable that a) we have a lot of coal, and b) we know how to use it.  While unregulated coal burning in some parts of the world is contributing emissions at an alarming rate, the U.S. has shown that these large utilities can remove a great deal of the hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) we recognize as most detrimental.  Indeed, many coal fired plants spend millions to stay in compliance or do better than required in perfect harmony with the objective of providing reliable, cheap power.  The elephant in the room is the looming CO2 discussion, one that is tricky and somewhat convoluted.  There is no silver bullet solution to collecting and reducing CO2 emissions in a simple, affordable way.  If CO2 control is required, the utilities will be forced to comply, and pass on the cost to the customer.  This may be fine with some people, but it will surely attract the ire of many as well.  Furthermore, the EPA does not have the people power or the regulatory infrastructure to deal with CO2 emissions.  It’s not as simple as inserting CO2 into the list of HAPs and requiring output limits.

It seems that perhaps the best course of action is not to give up on coal because it’s “dirty”, but rather to dedicate more research dollars into controlling or eliminating CO2 from coal-fired operations.  If we can use coal responsibly, and continue to advance new uses and controls, our energy outlook will be clear and promising.  As for now, it will be advantageous to educate consumers about where their power comes from, so that informed decisions can be reached.  The FPP offers tours not as a marketing gimmick to win over skeptics, but as a learning experience to share the behind-the-scenes work that goes into our daily power needs.

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