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Battle Royal: Pulverized - Coal vs IGCC

The battle for the future of coal-fired power is heating up. Recent developments give IGCC a fighting chance.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2005

technologies with higher efficiencies. The energy bill will assist the entry of these technologies into the market.”

Indeed, virtually all companies developing coal-fired plants today are looking closely at IGCC. About 15 percent of the new coal-fired capacity under development today would use IGCC technology (see Figure 2, “Pulverized Coal Dominates”) .

“We’re pushing forward on a lot of fronts, with both conventional coal and IGCC at several different sites,” says David Crane, president and CEO of NRG Energy based in Princeton, N.J. “Virtually everywhere we have solid-fuel fired generation now we are doing feasibility studies about whether we can expand or repower. We are very supportive of IGCC, and we expect more than one of our sites to emerge as logical for IGCC development.”

NRG’s furthest advanced project, however, will add a 675-MW supercritical boiler to the company’s 1,730-MW Big Cajun II facility in Louisiana. “We don’t see IGCC as the immediate solution because we don’t think you can build enough IGCC in the 2008 to 2015 time frame to meet the country’s needs,” Crane says. “There will need to be an intermediate wave of supercritical plants with the best-available back-end control technology.”

Supercritical and conventional pulverized-coal technologies enjoy two main advantages that puts them ahead of IGCC and other next-generation choices, such as fluidized bed combustion (FBC). Namely, pulverized coal plants are cheaper to build, and utilities are very comfortable operating them because they have been using them for decades. The United States relies on coal for just over 50 percent of its power capacity, and almost all of that capacity uses conventional boiler technology.

Furthermore, this long history with pulverized coal technology gives regulators great confidence that capital costs for these projects won’t spiral out of control, and they will be reliable providers of low-cost electricity for decades to come.

Still, in the past couple of years IGCC has achieved widespread acknowledgement as a more viable technology choice than ever before. In several states—Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Georgia, and Kentucky—IGCC has overcome an important hurdle in the power-planning process. Namely, state regulatory officials have determined that requiring IGCC to be considered as an alternative to pulverized-coal boilers does not exceed their mandate to determine what is the BACT for a given proposal. (In at least one case, this has led the developer of a pulverized-coal project—ERORA Group, at its Taylorville, Ill., project—to switch to IGCC.) And in California, regulators effectively have excluded any other coal-burning technology for new plants, in accordance with the greenhouse-gas reduction policies of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration.

These developments are encouraging for proponents of IGCC, because if and when the technology achieves the all-important BACT designation, IGCC effectively will trump boilers with back-end cleanup as the technology of choice for burning coal.

“You have to take the 20- to 40-year physical life of the plant and lay against it the 20- to 40-year horizon of environmental requirements,” says Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric Power (AEP) in Columbus, Ohio. “When we did that, we concluded that any new coal-fired plant had better be able not