Rolf Westgard's Oct. 13 commentary, "Using coal cleanly, not renewables, is our only hope for future energy," advocated for Excelsior Energy's Mesaba Project, a power plant proposed to be built near County Highway 7, the "Scenic Highway," in Itasca County.
Citizens Against the Mesaba Project, of which I'm a leader, is a grass-roots group that has studied Excelsior's permit applications to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and that has closely followed the contested case regarding Excelsior's unsuccessful attempt to force Xcel Energy to purchase the output of Mesaba Unit I. We have compiled extensive information about the project and about a technology known as integrated gasification combined cycle. We've posted it at our Web site at camp-site.info.
Westgard's premise that it's possible to use coal cleanly echoes the Bush administration's "clean-coal initiative," an oxymoron and myth, we feel, designed to obscure coal's problems and enhance the financial interests of the coal industry. People are tempted by the promise of so-called clean coal because coal is abundant in the U.S. and has a relatively low direct cost. Federal policy and incentives enable promoters of integrated gasification combined cycle technology to mislead the public about claimed benefits.
Under these circumstances, Westgard may be correct in saying that coal's share of electric energy generation in the U.S. is projected to increase to 57 percent by 2030. That does not mean that it's a good thing or that thoughtful citizens shouldn't work to avoid it.
Even though some reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions is achieved through integrated gasification combined cycle technology, the technology is still dirty and still contributes to all of the health and environmental problems known to be caused by the mining, transporting and combusting of coal.
In the contested case proceeding, the administrative law judges, relying on an analysis by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, compared integrated gasification combined cycle technology to "supercritical" and "ultrasupercritical" pulverized coal plants. They found that although the project is expected to significantly outperform future sulfur dioxide emission reductions of the other technologies, it is expected only to slightly outperform them in reducing particulate matter emissions and to slightly underperform them in reducing nitrogen oxide emissions.
The judges also found that integrated gasification combined cycle technology is not inherently better at controlling mercury emissions.
A plant with higher heat efficiency produces fewer emissions for each unit of electricity produced.
Westgard claimed that the Mesaba Project would be one of the world's most efficient coal plants. The MPCA and the judges concluded that, operating on subbituminous coal, Mesaba's thermal efficiency would be 36.3 percent. This is lower than the EPA would expect from a "generic" integrated gasification combined cycle plant (40 percent), from supercritical plants (37.9 percent), and ultrasupercritical plants (41.9 percent).
Westgard ignored the problems of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide. Excelsior seems to have no intention of capturing carbon dioxide until it is required to do so. It has admitted that currently available technology would enable it to capture only30 percent of Mesaba's5 million annual tons of carbon dioxide. This also would increase the cost for electricity that already costs 30 percent more than electricity available from other sources, including from renewables. This is one of the reasons the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission found Mesaba's proposed power purchase agreement not to be in the public interest.
The Mesaba Project is planned for a site that is about as far as it could be from potential sequestration sites. Piping the carbon dioxide to western North Dakota or to Canada would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it would reduce the efficiency of the plant by 10 percent.
The feasibility of large-scale and/or long-term sequestration has not yet been proven. There are known environmental and health dangers from migrating and escaping carbon dioxide.
A new coal-powered plant built today can be expected to operate for 50 years. But proliferation of greenhouse gases cannot be allowed.
Excelsior Energy already has received about $40 million in public subsidies to promote and develop the Mesaba Project.
It is counting on between $800 million and $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees and $130 million in federal tax credits. Such sums of money could better be spent on research and development of alternative and renewable sources of energy and improved distribution systems to replace dirty coal as the mainstay of our electric energy generation.
Charlotte Neigh of Bovey is co-chairwoman of the Citizens Against the Mesaba Project.