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LETTER OF THE DAY - 'Clean coal' not as simple as it sounds

Published:Sunday | October 10, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Jody Dunn, a technical officer at the Scientific Research Council, demonstrates to students of the Alston High School how their biogas digester will work when it is completed. - File

THE Editor, Sir:

Kindly permit me the privilege of commenting on Ms Lisa Hanna's letter on the subject of 'clean coal' as an energy source for Jamaica.

Ms Hanna, I beg to disagree with you.

No well-informed individual will disagree that coal-fired energy plants are more reliable and cost-effective as an energy source than natural gas. However, the subject of coal energy, per se, is quite complicated. One should be properly apprised of all facets on the subject in order to make a positive viable assessment on the issue.

First, there is a vast technical difference between, 'clean coal', and 'truly clean coal'. Traditional clean coal technology applies to a process that adduces the extraction of certain impure substances from the coal, thus opening the way for the existing carbon and oxygen to react when the coal is burned and subsequent to burning, the ash residue is then filtered out along with some pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide from the emissions. This process only reduces the nuisance of the environmental pollutants causing acid rain and smog.

When the coal mining industry classifies coal as emission-free coal (clean coal), they are referring to the removal of the public nuisance pollutants, and not to the elimination of the greenhouse emissions which causes climate change as specified in the accords in the International Standards agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, which puts the onus on mining companies to produce truly refined carbon-free coal, or 'carbon zero emissions coal'.

Grave political concern

Neither the United States nor China, the two largest producers and consumers of coal, has ratified the Kyoto Protocol agreement, for reasons related to the sensitive political implications on their economies. Partly out of genuine concern and partly in response to strong environmentalist lobbying, the US has given a time frame to their coal industry to comply with the standards of the accord. The US uses 50 per cent and China 80 per cent coal for their total power-based generation.

In order to meet the criteria of the International Accord for truly clean coal, the coal-mining companies would be giving an edge to the other competing energy sources, because of the resulting high cost to be incurred by consumers, if and when the transition is made. This prognosis is foreseen to premise to the possibility of coal being either reduced in importance, or being phased out of the energy market, and in the process creating serious dislocations in the large coal mining labour force. And this is an issue of grave political concern.

A further downside is the fact that established accessible coal reserves world-wide, at the current rate of consumption, will be depleted in just over 200 years, which period will definitely be lowered should China pursue its plans to export a significant portion of its coal production. This single fact makes it imprudent, or less than feasible, to make an investment in coal for energy purposes at this time.

Alternative energy solar-oriented institutions, such as Suntech and Kyocera, solar power, wind energy entities, such as Suzion, Siemens and General Electric; natural gas firms, such as British Petroleum, Chevron and Anadarko, Hydroelectric energy engineering and Hydrogen research entities, are aggressively posturing their environmentally friendly status; and may eventually succeed in removing coal from being the major energy source - a position it has maintained since the industrial revolution.

The use of coal energy necessitates storage stockpiling, which is done by creating open storage facilities, or by the construction of special silos; both methods present a range of hazardous challenges, including spontaneous combustion, carbon monoxide and other undesirable gas emissions, dust nuisance, respiratory health issues, etc. All of which require the use of expensive equipment to contain, supported by constant monitoring.

The cost of transporting natural gas is prohibitive. To convey it by sea requires the condensing of the gas to a liquid form (LNG) before it is encapsulated in cryptogenic tanks, fitted in special vessels prepared for that purpose. Over land it requires special pipe lines to convey it to high pressure storage tanks. The major challenge here is illegal siphoning and sabotage either at the wharf or along the pipe run.

Russia has the largest proven reserves of natural gas while Qatar has the largest gas field. Pockets of natural gas are being discovered on a regular basis in several regions of the world. It is also available from sources such as bogs, swamps, and shale, as well as in oil wells, and coal mines; which reasons makes it extremely difficult to arrive at any accurate data as the duration of the availability of natural gas from established reliable sources. At the current rate of consumption, natural gas is expected to last 150 years.

Although natural gas is being touted by the industry as being the fuel of the 21st century, scientists have warned of the imprudence of taking such a pronouncement seriously, as only approximately three per cent of natural gas is being used in the world's total power generation at this time; and should this rise, the available natural gas would be seriously depleted. Advanced plans are in place to replace the use of fossil energy generation with alternative renewable sources by the year 2030. At present, however, there is no available substitute for aviation fuel, which must await the perfection of hydrogen fuel technology; the energy fuel of the future.

The most viable suggestions for Jamaica at this time is to engage the use of a combination of hydroelectric and wind-powered energy generation, coupled with using solar power for street lighting, investing in an autoclaving facility, which converts the waste disposal available from our garbage dump sites, and sewage-disposal systems to fuel.

Explore autoclaving

In the United Kingdom, just such a facility is being constructed at an estimated cost of US$70 million, which is destined to be the largest of its kind in the world. This technology not only provides an efficient solution to the waste disposal problems, it converts waste to energy. All waste goes into the system, without any need for any form of separation into various categories. The possibility of building such a plant in Jamaica with the support of interested Caribbean Community partners, should be fully explored.

Autoclaving provides:


  1. (a) Biofuel - second generation bioethanol, biodiesel and biobutanol.
  2. (b) Biofuel to be co-fired in conventional, and biomass power stations.
  3. (c) Biofuel for conversion to biogas using anaerobic digestion technology to produce fuel for industrial boilers, and motor vehicles as well as household gas, etc.

(d) Independence from imported fuels reduced to 80 per cent of the sum currently expended to purchase fossil fuels, as well as giving a competitive edge to exporters. Lowering the cost of public transportation and energy used for industrial and domestic consumption, etc.

(e) An investment of a sum less than two-thirds of the proposed cost of the United Kingdom's plant could supply our energy needs and recouped the sum invested in a relatively short time.

I am, etc.,

HUGH WILLIAMS

psytech616@yahoo.com

Kingston 8