By Liu Baowen
Executive Editor, Cornerstone
In 2013, coal accounted for more than 70% of global energy reserves and more than 30% of global primary energy consumption. Thus, for the foreseeable future, coal will remain a principal source of energy. Deploying environmentally-friendly coal utilization technologies is a continuing objective of the coal industry that can offer long-term global benefits.
Gasification technologies can offer a significantly reduced environmental footprint when utilizing coal and other feedstocks. Gasification provides a pathway to create cleaner liquid and gaseous fuels, chemicals, power, and blends of products from indigenous carbonaceous feedstocks, providing an opportunity to address energy security and environmental objectives from around the world. Gasification facilities could also be critical in the struggle to mitigate climate change due to the inherently lower CO2 capture costs. While China is moving forward with several facilities, one could easily argue that the current level of deployment globally does not fully reflect the potential advantages. It is worth exploring why this may be the case.
Integrated gasification and combined-cycle (IGCC) power plants represent a significant departure from traditional power plants. For instance, IGCCs operate more like chemical production facilities as they often cannot quickly ramp to meet demand fluctuations. Most gasification facilities also come with multibillion dollar price tags; financing can be a challenge, especially because energy markets can fluctuate rapidly. In addition, gasification projects can be water-intensive. Although gasification can offer a decreased environmental footprint, important environmental considerations still exist, such as the generation of wastewater and finding suitable options to utilize or store CO2. Finally, integration of polygeneration facilities can become so complex that they can become difficult to operate.
Although overcoming such hurdles may have historically slowed the deployment of gasification, the industry is unquestionably gaining momentum today. There are more technologies on the market than ever before and these options are becoming increasingly flexible (in terms of scale, feedstock quality, and products). China’s coal-to-chemicals industry is leading the charge and employing technologies that were not available only a few years ago. Although gasification use is spreading, researchers worldwide are still working toward further improvements.
There is still much more room for gasification to grow. Coal-to-gas in Europe could end Russia’s stranglehold on some countries’ gas supplies. Poorer countries and rural areas could use simplified gasification facilities to provide power or fuels without a high upfront cost while employing local low-rank coals and wastes. Increased integration of some gasification facilities is making projects more competitive. In the U.S., the Texas Clean Energy Project and Kemper County IGCC plant are moving forward to demonstrate a new business model and a new gasification technology, respectively. In India, Prime Minister Modi has even hinted that he’d like the country to ramp up research in the coal-to-liquids arena to reduce oil imports.
This issue of Cornerstone is themed on the progress and opportunities in the rapidly expanding field of gasification. On behalf of the editorial team, I hope you enjoy it.