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Seattle and The Potential of Gasified Coal

800px-Seattle_spmSeattle? Nuclear energy? We think of Seattle – and Washington state -as hydro, wind, perhaps coffee – but not really nuclear. But of course, Washington has a nuclear plant – Columbia Generating Station – and nothing really stops any state from using nuclear energy.

Still, we were a bit surprised to find in the Seattle Times a pretty clear-eyed article.

Demand can easily rise 10 to 15 percent over the several years it takes to permit and build a substantial power-generation facility.

So, by all means continue to implement conservation and support all the wind, biomass, solar, geothermal, wave and tidal power that can be brought online.

But realize we can't stop there. We must also have full-time baseload power generation to back up intermittent renewable-power sources to ensure we have power when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

In Washington, the two realistic options available today for full-time baseload power are natural gas and nuclear power.

It gets better.

Tired attempts to link commercial nuclear power to vastly overblown cost and risk factors and defense wastes are irresponsible. Used commercial nuclear fuel is a valuable commodity that can be recycled, as is the routine in many of the world's nuclear-energy countries. Approximately 95 percent of the used fuel in every commercial reactor can be recycled safely, thereby reducing dependence on foreign energy sources and minimizing the need for new uranium mines.

We have no particular beef with new uranium mines – they’re pretty low impact environmentally – but this is an exceptionally straightforward look at the issues. Sid Morrison, who wrote it, is chairman of Energy Northwest's executive board; Energy Northwest is looking at introducing some new nuclear units – small, Back to the Future-ish small, units – into the mix. An opening salvo, perhaps.


20071128_gasification The technology already exists to make huge reductions in greenhouse emissions from coal, allowing power companies to begin cutting the carbon footprint of coal today. Instead, advanced-technology coal power sits on the shelf while regulators wait to see what happens with a project that may be just an expensive boondoggle.

Yes, this would be clean coal. Or more exactly, coal gasification.

The new approach turns coal into a gas similar to natural gas, which runs through a device similar to a jet engine. Such plants can achieve near-zero emissions of toxic material and chemicals that form smog, and they require about a third less coal than regular coal-fired power plants to produce an equal amount of energy, which means about a third lower greenhouse gases.


A gasification power plant with sequestration would have around two-thirds lower greenhouse gases than a conventional coal-fired generating station.

All this comes from Gregg Easterbrook, not an energy guy, so he’s a lot looser with words like “should work.” And there is this:

One reason Virginia gave for the denial [of a coal gasification plant] was the higher up-front cost of a gasification plant. Yet, once greenhouse gases are regulated (and President Obama’s cap-and-trade plan would in effect tax carbon), the economics of gasification plants may become attractive, with low-emission plants costing less to run.

That’s even looser – nuclear energy, of course, has high up-front costs, too, but the cost of producing electricity over the life of the plant mitigates that issue considerably and nuclear energy is mature and well understood. Coal gasification, as Easterbrook demonstrates, needs a fair amount of wriggly verbiage to overcome a lot of uncertainties. We’d hesitate to ding Virginia on this one.

And we guess that means that, while we always wish our coal cousins well in their pursuits, this story has not dislodged the niggling doubts that persist in our thinking about king coal. There is this: an admission that the coal industry is advancing in innovative ways to keep its relevancy high and its future potential alive.

That space needle certainly dominates the skyline of Seattle. In Atlanta, where I went to school, it was the blue dome atop the Hyatt Regency Hotel, now dwarfed by newer buildings. Maybe the mark of a city that’s arrived is an odd building that dominates photos and creates a way for us to say, Oh, that’s Seattle!

The Wabash River coal gasification plant in Indiana. A quite impressive sprawl.


If we considered the problem of base load electricity supply without taking economics into account and only looked at environmental issues, then nuclear would be the best way forward, certainly as a stopgap between non-renewable and renewable. But sadly there are vested interests, and so we are forced to take a poorer option so that the rich continue to get richer.
Anonymous said…
There actually is a technology that economically as well as cleanly marries nuclear and coal. Might want to check out
Robert Synnott said…
Two thirds reduction, quite frankly, even assuming it performs as in the brochure, doesn't sound good enough. Would that even bring it below the level of a conventional gas plant?

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