Coal, Gas

Natural gas uncertainty prevailing concern at COAL-GEN ’03

By Steve Blankinship,
Power Engineering Associate Editor

Sept. 2, 2003 — Concern surrounding natural gas supplies and prices was clearly the most broadly expressed theme at the COAL-GEN Conference and Exposition in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 6-8, which drew nearly 1,800 attendees and almost 170 exhibitors.

In his COAL-GEN keynote remarks, Dr. Linn Draper, Chairman and CEO of the nation’s largest electric utility, Columbus-based AEP, noted that in recent years, virtually all new generating facilities that have come on line have been fueled by natural gas.

“Now that some people question whether our natural gas supply is sufficient, and with the long lead times required to build a coal-fired plant, observers are asking what fuel source can be called upon for needed additions to the nation’s power supply,” he said. “What we can do today is maximize the availability and the capability of our nation’s existing coal-fired fleet. I believe this is an excellent strategy in virtually any set of economic circumstances. When I look at the roster of other fuels in our nation’s fuel mix, I believe it becomes all the more apparent that there is no substitute for coal.”

Jacqueline Bird, director of the Ohio Coal Development Office, told the keynote audience that while it is imperative that the U.S. continues developing the power plants of the future, the existing fleet of coal plants will be needed for many years to come and the nation’s best scientists must address and solve environmental issues associated with them.

Roger Kranenburg, director of business development of the Edison Electric Institute’s Alliance of Energy Suppliers, which serves the needs of power producers and marketers, stated that coal is again favored in the nation’s fuel mix. “The futures markets indicate a continued natural gas shortage resulting in sustained higher prices,” he said. “Since natural gas prices are subject to many forces causing greater price volatility than coal and because financial markets for all sectors currently favor lower risk investments compared to previous years, those markets should favor coal based investments.”

Roger Ballentine, founder and president of Green Strategies Inc., former chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force and deputy assistant for environmental initiatives in the Clinton Administration, told the COAL-GEN gathering that a brighter future for coal depends on the acceptance by traditional coal opponents that any plan for the energy future of the U.S. that does not include a major role for coal is simply unrealistic. He also said that traditional proponents of coal must understand that widespread concerns about environmental liabilities associated with coal are becoming more acute and shared by an increasingly broader segment of the population.

“In my opinion, the strongest and most secure future for coal will come not by committing more resources to political and public relations battles,” said Ballentine, “but by adopting an approach that respects the demands for environmental progress and works to make coal part of the solution to environmental problems.”

Another popular topic at the conference was the emerging technology of integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) – often cited as the Holy Grail for coal. In the paper, IGCC – Clean Power Generation from Solid Fuels, presented during a session titled “The Next Generation of Power Plants,” Norm Shilling of the Energy Products Division of GE Process Power gave a comprehensive overview of the state of the technology and provided insight into how its development will likely progress.

“We feel IGCC and other coal technologies are going to be very competitive if higher gas prices are sustained,” he said. He noted that existing IGCC and other solid fuel gasification projects – located at more than 100 refineries, chemical and processing plants – have demonstrated the commercial viability of gasification. And although they would be configured somewhat differently for utility power generation, they will serve as an experience base for power utility-based IGCC plants.

“We think solid fuel gasification power plants will be coming one way or another out of the process and refining industries,” says Shilling. “The gas turbine has gained recognition in those industries. People who operate them are concerned with their products, not the turbines. You need a plant going 20 years before utilities become truly comfortable with the technology.”

A panel discussion group updated COAL-GEN attendees on the status of six new coal-fired projects in various states of development in North America: Reliant Energy’s Seward plant in Pennsylvania; Springerville Units 3 and 4 in Arizona owned by UniSource; Peabody Energy’s Thoroughbred and Prairie State plants in Kentucky and Illinois; Eastern Kentucky Power’s Gilbert Unit at the existing Spurlock plant near Maysville, KY; GenPower’s Longview Project in West Virginia; and EPCOR’s Genesee Unit 3 being built in Alberta, Canada.

EPCOR’s Doug Topping said supercritical boiler technology would make the plant the most technologically advanced coal plant ever built in Canada. In explaining EPCOR’s decision to build Canada’s first new coal plant in more than 20 years, Topping said that power prices in North America will correlate with natural gas prices. With supplies in the U.S. and Canada depleting, prices will rise as supply tightens and pipeline capacity to many markets remains constrained. He noted that coal prices are low, coal is competitive with medium to high natural gas prices and is the most economical fossil fuel alternative to natural gas, and coal combustion technology and efficiency is improving.

AEP, COAL-GEN’s Event Sponsor, hosted a session describing the strategies AEP employs for effective materials handling at its coal-fired power plants. Carl Horn, from AEP’s Mountaineer Plant, summarized effective practices for active and long-term storage.

For active storage, maintain a uniform pile (stack coal high and dry), employ first-in-first-out inventory management, avoid pockets and flat spots where water can accumulate, and regularly turn over active storage. For long-term storage, Horn emphasized the importance of drainage, compaction, groomed banks, a perimeter berm, primary and secondary sediment ponds, and well-trained operators.

Mike Turner from AEP’s Rockport Plant discussed some of the lessons learned and changes implemented to accommodate PRB’s unique challenges. For example, Rockport has replaced ceramic chute liners with chromium carbine liners to aid coal flow; switched to an 85 percent/15 percent PRB/eastern bituminous coal blend to reduce slagging; and installed explosion vents and dampers on dust collectors to enhance safety.

COAL-GEN keynote session participants are shown below (left to right): Roger Kranenburg, Director of Business Development for the Edison Electric Institute’s Alliance of Energy Suppliers; Jacqueline Byrd, Director of the Ohio Coal Development Office; Steve Blankinship, COAL-GEN Program Committee Chair; Dr. Linn Draper, CEO, American Electric Power; and Roger Ballentine, President of Green Strategies Inc.