Constantopoulos: Making coal Earth friendly

Jim Constantopoulos
Eastern New Mexico University
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The question that keeps surfacing in discussions of global warming is: What if it became economically feasible to burn coal, oil and natural gas for electricity production without loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide emissions?  Wouldn’t that be great for New Mexico and other energy-producing states?

That kind of inquiry can begin by recognizing that as important as carbon mitigation may be in reducing the danger of global warming, we should realize that economic growth remains one of the world’s critical needs. Economically developing countries can’t be expected to forego the use of fossil fuels, particularly cheap and plentiful coal, when one-third of the world’s population — more than two billion people — still do not have access to electricity.

Coal-fired power generation is projected to grow by 0.6 percent annually over the coming years and will account for 29 percent of global power generation by 2040, compared to 40 percent in 2012.  In fact, by 2040 nearly two-thirds of all the world’s energy use will be in developing countries like China, India and Indonesia.

So, if there were a technology that could make continued use of fossil fuels possible without adding to the atmospheric burden of carbon emissions it would be a global game-changer.  Such a technology would eliminate the need for drastic reductions in fossil-fuel use and buy time for countries to shift toward carbon-free energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Fortunately, ExxonMobil is launching a major effort in the United States to demonstrate a cost-effective way to capture and store carbon emissions using advanced fuel-cell technology.  Recently, ExxonMobil reached an agreement with FuelCell Energy, a company based in Connecticut, to make carbon-reducing technology a realistic option for power plants and industrial facilities around the world.

The technology being developed uses natural gas or renewable biogas, which react electrochemically with oxygen to produce electric currents without creating emissions. The fuel cells provide clean energy, functioning as off-the-grid power suppliers akin to batteries.

The technology removes carbon dioxide from the plant’s exhaust stream, which then emerges in a concentrated form that can be pumped deep underground for storage.  Alternatively, the carbon can either be used to produce new electricity, extract hard-to-reach oil reserves or used in industrial applications, such as making fertilizer.

By making such use of the carbon, the technology can potentially reduce costs substantially compared to conventional carbon capture systems.  ExxonMobil estimates that a 500-megawatt power plant with these fuel cells could generate 120 megawatts of additional power, more than making up for the energy cost of capturing the carbon.  And, importantly, it could lead to a reduction of more than 90 percent in the plants’ carbon emissions.

Reducing carbon emissions is crucial.  Based on its latest projections, the Energy Information Administration says global carbon emissions from energy activities will rise from 36 billion metric tons in 2012 to 43 billion metric tons in 2040.  That’s a 34 percent increase in carbon emissions.  Reversing that trend is critically important.

Jim Constantopoulos is a professor of Geology, chairman of the Department of Physical Sciences, and director of the Miles Mineral Museum at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M.