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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 12:20 pm

Taylorville coal project moves ahead

Will the plan to “capture” carbon dioxide work?

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A rendering of the planned 630-megawatt Taylorville Energy Center.

To put coal’s importance to the Illinois economy into perspective, consider that while state officials and members of the Congressional delegation tried feverishly to prevent Rod Blagojevich from naming Barack Obama’s successor to the Senate, no one lifted a finger to stop him from signing a bill that cleared the way for a new generation of coal-fired power plants.

One of the former governor’s final acts in office came in early January with his approval of the Clean Coal Portfolio Standards Act, which defined “clean coal facilities” as those capturing at least 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and limiting other environmental pollutants such as carbon-monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur-dioxide, mercury and particulates.

In addition to requiring utilities and other electric retail suppliers to purchase up to 5 percent of their electricity from such “clean coal” facilities, the law entitles one initial facility to make 30-year purchase agreements for the sale of its output.

The first plant to benefit from the legislation is the proposed 630-megawatt Taylorville Energy Center, a venture between MDL Holding Co. of Louisville, Ky., and Omaha, Neb.-based Tenaska, Inc.

Now, a year-long cost study, including information about utility rates, must be performed and submitted to the Illinois General Assembly. If approved by the legislature and the Illinois Commerce Commission, which establishes utility service and consumer-protection rules, groundbreaking could commence in late 2010 with a projected completion date of 2014.

Becki Clayborn, Midwest regional represent for the Sierra Club, says the bill fails to “address all the other problems with coal,” such as storage of hazardous coal waste, nor does it deal with enforcement of the CO2 storage requirement.

“We’re really interested in the details — who’s going to monitor it and how do make sure it stays underground,” she says.

Bart Ford, a Tenaska vice president, doesn’t anticipate any more opposition because of environmental concerns. “We don’t think we have any known objectors now because we are proposing to capture. So I think everyone is pretty happy on the environmental side with the project,” he says.

Last year, Tenaska cleared a hurdle when the Environmental Appeals Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threw out the Sierra Club’s objection to the issuance of a construction authorization permit on procedural grounds. The board ruled that the Sierra Club failed to raise its concerns within the timeframe allowed by law.

At the heart of the Sierra Club’s argument was insufficient controls over carbon dioxide emissions at the proposed facility, which plans to utilize internal-gasification combined cycle, or IGCC, technology. In this process, high-sulfur Illinois coal is converted to synthetic natural gas to remove pollutants rather than being burned.

Furthermore, the EAB concluded, the technology “offers many environmental benefits compared to conventional emissions control technology.” Likewise, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency noted in response to the Sierra Club’s arguments that IGCC “is an important component of the technology that will be needed.”

The Illinois EPA granted the first U.S. air quality permit for the $2 billion generator in June 2007. The project has since evolved, Ford says: “Things have changed over time. One of the requirements to get the benefit of the legislation is that the plant has to be equipped to capture at least 50 percent of all the carbon. We’re also required to develop a place to put the carbon.”

Initial engineering plans did not call for capture and sequestration of carbon emissions but under the new standards, the plant will capture between 55 and 60 percent of the carbon. The CO2 would either be sold or stored in an underground rock formation known as the Mt. Simon aquifer.

By comparison, the stalled FutureGen project now being pushed toward approval in Mattoon by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and other Illinois officials would be a “near-zero emissions” facility, employing IGCC technology but capturing most of the CO2. (Taylorville’s plant would also use 10 to 12 million gallons of graywater per day from the Decatur sanitary district. A small amount of potable water for the plant will come from the city of Taylorville, Ford says).

The Sierra Club isn’t sure that sequestration goals are as attainable as coal proponents claim, Clayborn says, pointing out that currently, just one coal-fired power plant in the nation is using capture-and-store for just 2 percent of its CO2 emissions so “it’s hard to imagine the jump to 50 or 90 percent.”

Ultimately, Clayborn says, federally funded pilot projects may be needed to develop sequestration technology. However, she adds, “If we’re going to sink money into a clean energy we should sink it first into renewable energy and conservation.”

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