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Nuclear vs. IGCC

Next-gen technologies race to dominate the big build.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2007

for right now, considering the generation mix in the United States, industrial gasification projects will be more widespread.”

Examples include Rentech’s plans to convert a natural-gas fed ammonia/fertilizer plant in East Dubuque, Ill., to use Illinois coal from a Peabody mine. Using the ConocoPhillips’ E-Gas technology, the facility would produce both fertilizer and transportation fuels, as well as 76 MW of electric power. Other industrial gasification projects will use coal or other solid fuels, such as petroleum coke, to produce hydrogen for use by oil refineries, and CO 2 for enhanced oil recovery.

“These industrial poly-generation projects are a much better approach than central power plants,” says Dale Simbeck, vice president of technology at SFA Pacific in Mountain View, Calif. “There is tremendous potential for industrial poly-generation in Texas, California, and Alberta.”

By comparison, IGCC is moving slower than industrial gasification because base-load power supplies are not yet constrained enough in most markets, and regulators are reluctant to push IGCC plants any faster. The long-term picture for IGCC appears brighter—particularly if CCS options prove workable. But in the short term such projects face tough challenges.

Namely, IGCC proposals today must stand up against well-established base-load heavyweights already in the market: nuclear, gas-fired combined cycle, and pulverized-coal (PC) plants. Even the advent of carbon regulation wouldn’t change the economic equation for IGCC significantly for at least a few years after the regulation took effect. Existing PC plants will be able to remain competitive in the market if they offset their carbon emissions with cheap carbon credits, probably costing about $10 a ton at the outset.

“You can’t beat 300 GW of old coal units to death with a carbon-tax stick,” Simbeck says.

Thus, until the existing fleet of coal-fired plants is retired, and CCS is demonstrated to be cost-effective on an industrial scale, IGCC plants will have difficulty getting a foothold in the market. But then again, any new power plant will have a disadvantage against any fully depreciated plant. The more valid question compares IGCC+CCS with other large-scale options for climate-friendly power generation.

Nuclear Restart

Comparing nuclear with any other power technology is a hazardous thing to do. No new nuclear plant has been ordered in the United States for more than 30 years, and since then the industry has gone through a painful series of setbacks – massive cost overruns, public protests and the Three Mile Island accident. And the risks of terrorism and nuclear proliferation have exacerbated security fears involving nuclear facilities.

Recent developments, however, have changed the outlook for new nuclear plants. Utilities and independent power companies are pursuing about 30 reactor projects. About a dozen are expected to file COL applications by the end of 2008, and six new plants seem likely to seek financing in the near-term future.

“We expect early site preparation will start by the late 2008 and 2009 time frame,” says Adrian Heymer, senior director of new plant deployment at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Once the first companies get their licenses, probably in late 2010 or early 2011, they will start pouring concrete for