Clean Coal Power: Honestly?
Clean coal power adds “carbon capture technology” to a coal-fired power plant to capture carbon dioxide emissions produced from the burning of coal, and permanently store the captured greenhouse gas underground. Experts have long speculated that affordability would be the biggest challenge for this technology, which requires expensive equipment and consumes energy that would normally be sold. Published records show these experts were onto something.
For years, the Southern Company’s Kemper power plant in Mississippi was marketed as proof that American innovation could demonstrate clean coal technology’s economic viability. Instead, Kemper’s design created an insurmountable problem. It required much more downtime for maintenance than originally forecast. According to one 2014 report, the plant would be offline 45% of its first 5 years of operation, rather than 25%, as the company had publicly projected. Those figures raised lifetime costs dramatically, dooming the company’s “clean coal” ambitions. The company learned this three years before it told regulators that it planned to run the plant on natural gas instead of coal. Still it pressed on, sinking nearly $3 billion more into construction.
In fact, even before the first shovel was turned, a top company executive expressed doubts that the plant could be built within the budget specified by Mississippi regulators. Indeed, by 2012 construction costs ran far over budget limits, yet top Kemper officials hid damaging projections from independent monitors when state officials still had the opportunity to cancel the project. All the while, Southern Company management kept assuring investors that the plant could come in under budget. In 2013 they even touted the completion of a huge coal storage dome as a sign of progress. The dome had in fact begun crumbling on the inside months earlier. Eventually a huge hole opened up in the ceiling and the dome had to be demolished and rebuilt.
Before it ran aground, Kemper drew support from both the Obama and Trump administrations. Trump has been especially effusive in his support of “beautiful clean coal.” The plant received roughly $400 million from taxpayers last June, before construction ended for good.
Last August, the Southern Company received a new Department of Energy grant of over $380 million for projects to develop “transformational coal technologies,” on condition that the projects would generate affordable electricity on schedule. There seems to be no hurry to recover the money.
The company’s other mega-project, the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia— five years behind schedule and $10 billion over budget—was offered $3.7 billion in federal loan guarantees last September. And late in the year, the Securities and Exchange Commission halted an investigation into allegations that the company concealed schedule delays— without sanctioning the company. A number of shareholder lawsuits are pending.
At the cost of $7.5 billion, the Kemper plant turned out to be the most expensive fossil-fueled power plant ever built, yet it managed to produce “clean coal” electricity for only five days last June. Compare these economics to Green Mountain Power Company’s four grid-scale solar microgrids in Vermont—5 megawatts (MW) of solar plus 2 MW of battery storage each—costing an average of $8.8 million each. For $7.5 billion, 852 of these could have been built, producing 887,000 megawatt-hours of clean electricity every year, for the next 40-50 years—plus an assortment of additional benefits to the power grid.
The question arises: is there an honest route to clean coal?