Germany Opens Clean Coal Demonstration Plant

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Vattenfall DrawingGermany’s Secretary of the Chancellery, Thomas de Maizière, and Prime Minister of Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck, together with Swedish Minister for Higher Education and Research Lars Leijonborg opened on Tuesday the world’s first “clean coal” plant, one that is ready to capture and store its carbon dioxide emissions. The 30-megawatt, $100 million Schwarze Pumpe pilot plant will burn washed lignite coal in an atmosphere of oxygen instead of regular air, producing some 10 tons per hour of compressed CO2. This compressed CO2 will then be captured and buried under a depleted gas field.Swedish power company Vattenfall has both built, and will be operating this pilot thermal power plant. If the technology is successful, Vattenfall will be well placed to license and export the technology to other countries and regions where energy demand is high, and coal is cheap.

This “clean coal” technology is different than the more commonly known Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology, whereby coal is turned into a cleaner-burning gas prior to combustion. What both technologies share though, is that they require a carbon capture and storage stage. While capturing the carbon dioxide is easy, if not cheap, finding storage that is both long-term, safe, and finally economical for the power producer is much more difficult.

Readers should do well to remember that this is still currently a pilot-scale plant, and not even at a demonstration scale (30 megawatts is very roughly equivalent to enough energy to supply 30 000 homes). While the pilot plant only took about 15 months to be constructed, it will be a few more years before there are any plants that will be able to demonstrate any economic viability. Following test operations extending over several years at the pilot unit, Vattenfall intends by 2015 at the latest to construct two demonstration power plants with an electrical capacity of up to 500 megawatts. From 2020 onwards the technology should then be economically viable and available for large-scale industrial applications.

Let’s hear from our readers in the comments: do you think “clean coal” is viable, commercially and environmentally, or is it just a red herring?

For more on “clean coal” and carbon capture, see:

Photo courtesy of Vattenfall

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