New Life for Old Coal Plants

by Tim Vail

Power executives and engineers often find themselves in the “taken-for-granted” group. They have performed so reliably for so long with the existing fleet of small, medium and large coal plants that many regulators think rules can change, costs can increase, new emissions requirements can be imposed, and that today’s seamless economic service and reliability can be sustained at today’s prices. They can’t.

Coal gasification is a solution for re-powering and increasing outputs at small- and medium-sized plants-while reducing emission levels to nearly those of natural gas.
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Existing utility fleets have well-designed assets that address base load and load pocket location needs. These are reliable and well-maintained plants with many decades of operation before them. But with new emissions rules likely, utilities are being positioned where they must choose between scrapping existing plants and replacing them at inflated costs-or fighting to operate so-called “dirty” legacy coal plants.

There is little help from the industrial literature, which is skewed to replacing today’s plants with massive, often unproven, 800 MW to 1,000 MW billion-dollar gasification facilities. These will take at least six years to build and “forever” to pay off. This bias ignores the potential for rejuvenating today’s small- and medium-sized assets, the scrapping of which would be a national economic tragedy. The problem, then, is how to make these reliable plants meet consumer and environmental needs economically for decades to come.

The solution: rejuvenating plants

Coal gasification is a solution for re-powering and increasing outputs at small- and medium-sized plants-while reducing emission levels to nearly those of natural gas. To put it simply, the re-powering of existing coal power plants is becoming more competitive thanks to recent advances and tightening gas demand.

From an engineering perspective, gasification offers utilities a flexible, customized, modularly-scaled, clean-coal answer available to even small plant operators. Operationally speaking, coal gasification is an exciting option on three levels: increased output, the ability to switch to less expensive fuels, and the option to capture and sequester carbon dioxide.

Retrofitting today’s coal combustion plants for gasification can potentially triple their output. Re-powering smaller plants means lower capital costs and shorter siting times than greenfield development of large-scale coal-fired plants utilizing gasification. And, by using a wide variety of cheaper fuels, like lignites or low-rank coals, gasification processes can become a highly cost-effective decision.

Proof of a real solution

One proof of a real solution is in this formula: The solution meets many needs, without unintended consequences, and you only pay for it once.

Coal gasification is a one-time answer to many regulatory scenarios. Proven gasification technology will virtually and immediately eliminate NOx, SOx, and particulate emissions. It will also make a plant carbon sequestration-ready when sequestration becomes an option-or a requirement.

Three developments could make that option happen more quickly: first, an unforeseen advance in sequestration technology that will collect and dispose of the millions of tons of CO2 that now vent into the atmosphere annually; second, the discovery of new uses for pure CO2 streams that processes like U-GAS make available; and, the early implementation of CO2 regulations to put pressure on CO2 emitters like coal-fired power plants.

Unprecedented economies can go hand-in-hand with on-time deliveries and short turn-arounds to full operation.
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While none of these possibilities can be ruled in or out, the technology for sequestering massive CO2 emissions from today’s coal-powered fleet isn’t here. But opportunities to use pure CO2 streams do exist. For example, there is a demand for CO2 in oil fields for enhanced oil recovery whereby the CO2 is injected to push oil toward well bores.

As for CO2 regulations, today’s regulatory climate is unpredictable but not without trends. California and Washington on the West Coast passed global warming legislation and New Jersey on the East Coast has done the same. A number of Fortune 500 businesses have set up the U.S. Climate Air Partnership, which accepts the premise of man-made climate change and remediation. The continuation of these trends will isolate and put the focus on utility plants as CO2 emitters.

While coal gasification has many technological advantages, cost has been prohibitive and delivery times too long. Today, utilities have new ways to reduce costs.

For decades, utilities were a captive market to local equipment vendors. Transportation and handling of large, heavy vessels made remote suppliers prohibitive. But so much American manufacturing has moved offshore that large projects must now be done remotely or not at all.

Eastern Europeans and the Chinese are the principal players in large vessel manufacture. They want U.S. business, and Chinese companies in particular will bid within utility budgets and deliver within construction timeframes. Unprecedented economies can go hand-in-hand with on-time deliveries and short turn-arounds to full operation. The time line of a typical U-GAS installation, for example, is shown in the illustration.

A clean-coal future

Power executives and engineers face growing demands for economical electric power as a mainstay of U.S. productivity. They also face ever-more stringent environmental standards. But renewables such as wind and biomass make up a very small percentage of base load power supply and new natural gas units are not competitive. Nuclear power is mired in community acceptance and regulatory issues.

At the same time, three factors-economics, the size and security of U.S. coal reserves, and U.S. environmental needs-will converge to force a clean-coal solution to growing electricity demand.

Economically, there is a compelling case for building a sustainable domestic clean-coal industry with domestic jobs and reducing the balance-of-payments for energy. Equally compelling is the case for using low-rank coals and lignites rather than paying premium prices for natural gas and imported oil. Environmentally, the promise of gasification to reduce NOx, SOx and particulate emissions, and prepare for the at-the-source removal of greenhouse gases is a giant step toward regaining U.S. environmental leadership.

We believe the only safe bet for future productivity in a changing world is clean coal and the operational and environmental advantages of coal gasification.


Timothy Vail is director, president and CEO of Synthesis Energy Systems. SES uses its licensed U-GAS technology to turn a wide array of low-end fuels into synthesis gas for use in power and chemical applications. Vail previously served as director of commercialization for fuel cell development for General Motors and as vice president of product development at The New Power Company. You may contact him at

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