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News Analysis

Experts debate whether Bush's Clear Skies plan on power plant emissions clears the way for better emissions technologies.
Fortnightly Magazine - April 1 2002

Jeffords bill calls for a reduction of 2.2 million tons by 2007. It is quite ambitious, but given the timeline that is proposed in the Jeffords bill, there's ample time, and it's perfectly obvious what the control technology is," he says.

Cap, Trade, and Incent Technology?

Yet it is the existing technology, particularly the BACT standard, that some like Larry Bickle, managing director of venture capital firm Haddington Ventures, think is part of the emissions problem. Bickle is an enthusiastic supporter of cap-and-trade programs, in large part because he believes that the current regulatory regime squelches emissions reduction technology development. "Once you specify best available technology, then you've erected such an enormous barrier to entry, that no new technology can be developed. So cap-and-trade, that allows you to experiment with different technologies and just focus on the result, is clearly far superior to any kind of specific, dictated technology."

Bickle is not alone in his belief. During Congressional testimony in January, Frank Alix, CEO of New Hampshire-based Powerspan, said that "existing regulatory requirements significantly limit the generating industry's compliance flexibility, thereby making the use of lower-cost, multi-pollutant approaches less viable." Powerspan is a clean-energy technology company that develops more cost-effective pollution control technologies.

Despite the relatively low emissions from gas-fired plants and rosy predictions of a 30 Tcf gas market, Bickle said his firm realized a couple years ago that "this country is going to have to burn a lot more coal than anybody else was thinking. That's one reality. And the second reality is, the green movement is real and here to stay, and so there was going to have to be an accommodation to the greens to burn the coal." With those realizations in mind, Haddington commissioned a team to go out and explore what emissions controls were available from a technology viewpoint, and what the barriers were to getting them into the market.

After two years and half a million dollars of searching, the research team found that there were three technologies that from a purely technological viewpoint, would reduce the SO 2, NO x, and mercury emissions from a coal-fired power plant to close to zero. "There's a pre-combustion process that we believe would do that, there's a process that occurs during the combustion that we think would do that, and there's a post-combustion process that we believe would do that," Bickle says.

The technologies were invented by largely independent researchers, Bickle says-the stereotypical garage inventors. The technologies have been proven, he says, in a 50 MW environment, but scaling up to 400 MW remains an issue. While the inventors' cost estimates were not reliable, Haddington had its own power plant engineers look at the technology. Those engineers, Bickle says, believe that all three technologies could be scaled up, at a cost that is less than the incremental cost of adding scrubbers to achieve the same level of reductions. "So, there's a good possibility, but far from proven, that you could go to zero emissions for cheaper than the incremental cost of current BACT," he says.