Queen coal will be fragrant

1 June 2007

‘Clean-coal power plant moves step closer’ was the headline I read over a story recently in one of the best-respected English-language daily newspapers. The hyphen is striking and I mused upon its import. I was struck, too, by the implication of forthcoming power plant.

Technical cleanness has long been required of coal for electrical generating stations, so hailing its nearer approach seems a little out of order. In my treasured copy of a 1980s ‘energy dictionary’ I find that the term Coal cleaning refers the user to a string of other entries – Baum coal washer, Cyclone washer, Dense medium process, Dry cleaning process and Froth flotation – so even in those far-off days the notion of feeding as-mined coal to a power plant boiler must have been too primitive even to cross an operator’s mind.

The (hyphenless) term, clean coal technology, as used in more recent times, has usually pertained to the cleaning of emitted combustion products rather than of feed coal, and more particularly to the removal of environmental pollutants and contaminants. The most modern offenders – greenhouse gases – are bringing on the newest developments and are, I guess, responsible for the newspaper reporter’s excitement noted above.

Perhaps the ‘clean-coal power plant’ that they so enthusiastically foresee includes the kind of station I wondered at in MPS last June, p79*, fired by ultimately clean carbonless coal: if ‘coal’ it can be called.

Energy business is regrouping, with a little drama

For some time now the world has seen a weakening in the power of the ‘oil majors’, the big multinational hydrocarbon companies that once dominated the liquid fuel market. Taking over instead, and ever more strongly, we have hydrocarbon-endowed countries governed by interventionists of one kind or another. An obvious example is Russia, which has been making headlines with its progressive politicisation of its vast hydrocarbon resources. But more interesting in its way is a much smaller state that has, for its size, been as richly endowed.

In last month’s MPS, while pondering oil companies’ past – and possible future – branching-out into nuclear power, I also relished news of a nuclear group that would like to take up wind farming. But at least as instructive as these instances is the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which produces by far the greatest part of the United Arab Emirates’ oil, a commodity they mostly export. Unlike the top management of Total, which sees that company’s way forward as venturing from hydrocarbons into nuclear power, the leading lights of Abu Dhabi see their salvation in renewable energy.

In realisation of what they call the Masdar Initiative, the emirate’s strategists want to research and develop energy technology. They wish to do this for a world they believe anxious to mitigate the effects of climate change brought about by careless consumption of hydrocarbon fuel. Their r&d intentions are very ambitious, and framed for carrying out in partnership with prominent academic institutions in the UK, USA and Japan.

The Masdar initiators seem highly conscious of the interdependence of their many endeavours. To name just two of these: they are working on CO2 capture as much for use of the CO2 in enhancing oilfields’ production as for passive sequestration, and are collaborating with a German group in plans for a 100 MW solar power plant. They are understandably a bit ambivalent about their aims, claiming that they do not so much seek substitutes for their oil and gas export enterprises as to make their hydrocarbon resources last longer before necessarily giving way to renewable successors.

So whereas the hydrocarbon old-timer, Total, contemplates a ‘nuclear adventure’, the visionaries of Abu Dhabi prefer to bet on the renewables that Total thinks inadequate. It is a possibly dramatic confrontation of ideas. Personally I think it should not be over-dramatised. Humankind will probably need to make appropriate use of nearly every energy source that offers, whether it be hydrocarbon, renewable or nuclear (or…?), for as far ahead as we can sensibly foresee.

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