Saturday, June 22, 2024
More from MPR


Coal gasification gets environmental review

People concerned about possible environmental problems with a proposed coal gasification plant on the Iron Range have a first chance to express their views tonight. The U.S. Department of Energy is holding meetings to explain the project and hear from residents about what issues the agency should consider as it prepares an environmental study. But some environmentalists say that study will sidestep the biggest questions.

Duluth, Minn. — Tom Micheletti is a partner in Excelsior Energy, the company that wants to build the coal gasification plant on the Iron Range. He's wrangled millions of dollars in state and local subsidies, along with shortcuts in state regulations, to build the plant. He estimates it'll cost nearly $2 billion.

"This is the technology that our country needs to deploy over the next 40-50 years," he says. "And we're not saying it's the perfect technology, but it's the technology that's going to lead us to a zero emission power plant utilizing coal as fuel."

The design is based on a plant built in Indiana 10 years ago. That plant has had its share of problems, but Micheletti says they've learned a lot, and the new plant will be more reliable.

The process involves subjecting coal to heat, pressure, and steam. The coal breaks down into gases, which are burned to generate electricity. Also, the waste heat is used to make steam, which produces more electricity.

"This is THE technology that our country needs..."
- Tom Micheletti

So it's a lot more efficient than a standard coal-burning power plant. And it's also a lot cleaner. It's designed to put out much less of the sulfur and nitrogen compounds that make smog and acid rain. Micheletti says it will even capture 90 percent of the mercury. And there's another potential environmental benefit, Micheletti says.

"It is the only technology that I'm aware of that has the capability of someday capturing additional amounts of C02 from our synthetic gas stream, and then if we can find a way to sequester that, we'll be able to do that."

That would reduce greenhouse gases. But it's unclear where the gases could be stored in northern Minnesota, where the bedrock is so close to the surface.

Micheletti originally proposed to build the plant at an abandoned mine site near Hoyt Lakes, on the eastern end of the Iron Range.

That was part of the rationale for legislation passed in 2003 that allows the company to build without proving a need for the electricity. The legislation also gives the company unprecedented power of eminent domain for its plant and transmission lines.

But now Micheletti wants to build it near Taconite, on the west end of the Range. He says that land is closer to a substation where the power can enter the transmission grid. And the plant can use water that's accumulated in nearby mine pits.

But environmental activists, and some nearby cabin owners, are outraged that the project has moved from the closed mine near Hoyt Lakes, to the woods off Scenic Highway 7. Carol Overland is an attorney who specializes in regulatory issues.

"We don't need to be doing it this way..."
- Carol Overland

"We'll have truck traffic for the waste; we'll have transmission lines -- very high voltage transmission lines. There'll be coal trains going through there, constantly," she says.

Besides those concerns, Overland has a bigger bone to pick. She says because of the legislative concessions, the plant isn't required to prove it's needed. She says recent studies show Minnesota's energy supply, including projects in the works, pretty well matches demand. And she says any new generation should use renewable sources of energy.

"Renewable energy is here, we don't need to be doing it this way, and I don't think it's a good use of money," Overland says. "If we put $1.97 billion into combining wind and gas, in a way that you use wind, and only when it isn't blowing do you kick in the natural gas. Think of what we could do with that."

But the question of what kind of power is better won't be part of the federal environmental study. That's because the federal money supporting the project comes from the Clean Coal Power Initiative -- a fund specifically set aside to invest in clean coal technologies.

The state will also be conducting an environmental review.

The federal Department of Energy will accept comments until November 14th.