Sunday, March 04, 2018

How America's Clean Coal Dream Unravelled

Kemper power plant promised to be a world leader in ‘clean coal’ technology but Guardian reporting found evidence top executives knew of construction problems and design flaws years before the scheme collapsed.

In this 2012 photo, cone sections of a gasifier coal feed system, left, are seen at a Kemper County energy facility near DeKalb, Miss. (Credit: Rogelio V. Solis/AP) Click to Enlarge.
High above the red dirt and evergreen trees of Kemper County, Mississippi, gleams a 15-story monolith of pipes surrounded by a town-sized array of steel towers and white buildings.  The hi-tech industrial site juts out of the surrounding forest, its sharp silhouette out of place amid the gray crumbling roads, catfish stands and trailer homes of nearby De Kalb, population: 1,164.

The $7.5bn Kemper power plant once drew officials from as far as Saudi Arabia, Japan and Norway to marvel at a 21st-century power project so technologically complex its builder compared it to the moonshot of the 1960s.  It’s promise?  Energy from “clean coal”.
Kemper, its managers claimed, would harness dirt-cheap lignite coal – the world’s least efficient and most abundant form of coal – to power homes and businesses in America’s lowest-income state while causing the least climate-changing pollution of any fossil fuel.  It was a promise they wouldn’t keep.

Last summer the plant’s owner, Southern Company, America’s second-largest utility company, announced it was abandoning construction after years of blown-out budgets and missed construction deadlines.
It’s failure is also likely to have a profound impact on the future of “clean coal”.  “This was the flagship project that was going to lead the way for a whole new generation of coal power plants,” said Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.  “If the initial project doesn’t work then who’s going to invest in any more like it?”

Company officials have blamed the failure on factors ranging from competition from tumbling natural gas prices to bad weather, bad timing and plain old bad luck.

But a review by the Guardian of more than 5,000 pages of confidential company documents, internal emails, white papers, and other materials provided anonymously by several former Southern Co insiders, plus on- and off-record interviews with other former Kemper engineers and managers, found evidence that top executives covered up construction problems and fundamental design flaws at the plant and knew, years before they admitted it publicly, that their plans had gone awry.
Kemper’s failure will have a profound impact on international plans to slow climate change which rely heavily on the rapid development of technology to capture carbon and store it, technology that has so far shown little progress.

The United States has spent hundreds of millions in federal taxpayer funds chasing the chimera of clean coal.  Donald Trump has been particularly vocal about his support for clean coal.  “We have ended the war on American energy and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” he said in this year’s State of the Union address.

Read more at How America's Clean Coal Dream Unravelled

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