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Cover Story

Cleaning up coal in West Texas expected to help fuel SA and wring out the oil patch

Photo: Photos by Greg Harman, License: N/A

Photos by Greg Harman

Photo: , License: N/A

Larry Pickerel of Legato Resources

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Summit Energy’s Laura Miller

Meanwhile, the waste air emissions will add up to less than a typical gas-fired plant, and most of the heavy metals — including the neurotoxin mercury so typical of traditional coal plants — will be "vitrified," turned into glass beads that could then be potentially disposed of by mixing it into construction concrete.

San Antonio's CPS Energy signed a 25-year Power Purchase Agreement for 195 megawatts from the plant as part of its ongoing attempt to replace dirtier sources of energy such as the 871-megawatt J.T. Deely coal plant, set to be decommissioned by 2018. After a previous leadership promised scrubbers to clean up the pollution at Deely, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby decided to close the plant early instead, saving an estimated three billion in needed retrofits. In the past year, CPS has also purchased an 800-megawatt gas-fired power plant and signed a PPA for 400 megawatts of new solar power.

Though research into capturing carbon from power plants has been going on for years, TCEP could be the first full-scale coal plant to utilize CCUS, that is: carbon capture, utilization, and storage. The support behind the federally supported effort to clean up coal is diverse, including a number of environmentalists as well as the captains of the coal industry, people who recognize that — in spite or because of the accumulating dangers poised by climate change with each year of federal inaction — coal power makes up a full half of the electricity produced in the U.S. today and 27 percent of all the climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases released by the nation, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

"I want to save the polar bears and my boss, [Summit Power Board Chairman] Don Hodel, wants to save coal," Miller said. "We come from very different perspectives. One of the reasons this project is so successful is because it's very bi-partisan. … People from all different philosophies understand this project."

Of course, there are those who understand it and still don't entirely embrace it. "There is no such thing as 'clean' coal," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director for Public Citizen of Texas. "Coal still has to be mined, and that puts out a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases." Yet the technology has support at the federal level: a full $450 million of development funding has been committed to TCEP from the U.S. Department of Energy. A deal signed at a recent San Antonio energy forum with the Chinese Sinopec Engineering Group, a relationship that brings with it a billion dollars from the Export-Import Bank of China, delivered what is expected to be the project's sole lender.

But the venture will only be successful — from a climatic perspective — if the CO2 stays where it is put. To address that variable, UT's Bureau of Economic Geology's Gulf Coast Carbon Center has been watching several oilfields in Texas and along the Gulf. One, known as SACROC, in Scurry County has been flooded with CO2 since the late 1970s. "We started with some skepticism about a decade ago, not sure that [carbon sequestration] was a great idea," said Susan Hovorka, principal investigator at the GCCC. "And we've now finished five and started two field tests and they've been surprisingly affirmative."

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