Air Pollution Control for Coal-Fired Power Plants

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This is an update by the same author, a Ph.D. chemical engineer, of a BCC Research report of the same name published in March 2009. In the three-plus years since then there has been a lot of talk, political posturing and research, but not much has actually happened, either in new technology or major new business thrusts, in the coal-fired power plant industry regarding its actions to control air pollution from these plants. But much else has happened and continues to happen in the overall U.S. and global economic, energy and pollution control situations; some of these actions, or non-actions, affect operations of coal-fired power plants. Many different and interlaced factors, not only technological and economic, but also political, are affecting and often driving the discussions of present and future policies and plans.

The United States and the rest of the industrialized world continue to struggle with the global economic slowdown that persists from the economic collapse that resulted from the bursting of the housing and banking excess bubble in 2008. Further complicating the situation is the political gridlock in the United States Congress, which increased after Republicans took control of the Congress after the 2010 midterm election. With a Democratic president and a Republican Congress unwilling to take any action that could help him, legislative action essentially stopped before the 2012 election. Not much has been enacted since the 2010 mid-term election.

Pollution controls for coal-fired power plants are expensive, as we shall discuss in this report, and power companies are loath to spend money on such controls, since they not only cost money and contribute nothing to power generation but also can use power and resources that private utility companies would prefer to spend elsewhere or take as profits. Thus, such expenditures for capital additions and operating costs for pollution control devices will ordinarily be made only when mandated by government laws and resulting regulations. Republicans as a rule oppose such regulations and controls on private industry, while Democrats are usually more sympathetic to regulation, especially environmental regulation that can improve public health and safety. The current gridlock in Washington, DC virtually guarantees that little will be done in the near future.                                                                                         

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Along with the general and widespread problems and concerns over national debts, economic growth or decline and unemployment, there are two other and different pertinent economic and technical areas, which with the countries of the world (and the entire global economy) are currently struggling with and seeking solutions. These are energy supplies and the environmental consequences of exploiting those supplies.

Energy can be supplied from a number of different sources. Today most of the world's energy is derived from so-called 'fossil fuels,' the products of millennia of decay of animal and vegetable matter. The three primary fossil fuels are crude oil, natural gas and coal and all three have been exploited vigorously.

  • Crude oil has several advantages in that it is liquid (although often so viscous that it hardly seems liquid) and is rather easily and economically transported around the globe and across land and sea. Crude oil is refined using known technologies to produce a number of different products, ranging from light gases to liquid fuels to heavy oils and asphalts. It is in high demand for its ease of use and its number of applications. Crude oil, coming in large part from countries and regions not known for stability such as the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela, has been on a price roller coaster for the past several years. In 2008 the price of crude oil more than doubled in less than a year for no known physical or supply reasons except that developing countries, especially China and India, started using and seeking far greater quantities of oil than in the past. However, no sooner had crude oil prices peaked at close to $150/bbl than the price bubble burst and prices dropped in 2009 to around $40. More recently crude prices have increased to over $100/bbl, with recent prices somewhat below that as world economic activity appears to be slowing down.
  • Natural gas has always had one principal advantage: it is the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels, an important environmental factor. In the United States its demand has increased, originally as tougher environmental controls on power plants moved many utilities and other power producers to either switch to natural gas or build new power plants that burn it. More recently, the rapid expansion of natural gas production by hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') of natural gas shale formations has produced a glut in the U.S. with prices at historic lows. This has led to faster and greater movement by the electric power industry to gas-fired power plants. Natural gas has one big disadvantage compared to crude oil; that is, it is gaseous - a unit of energy (such as a BTU or a joule) of a gas takes up much more space than a liquid. Transporting natural gas over large distances requires a much greater investment than that to transport an energy-equivalent quantity of crude oil. There are solutions, such as liquefying the gas with cold, pressure, or both for smaller-volume transport and building power and other gas-using plants near gas fields. But a lot of current natural gas is considered 'stranded' in remote places like Siberia, and a lot of it is flared into the atmosphere. This is not much of a problem in the U.S., with its extensive gas pipeline network.
  • Coal, the third fossil fuel, is important principally to date as a fuel for the generation of electricity. Being solid, it is not easily adapted for use as a transportation fuel unless it is chemically converted to a combustible gas or liquid; more later on so-called coal-to-liquid (CTL) technologies. Thus, coal is used today in the United States primarily for electrical power generation, and coal-fired power generation is the subject of this study and report.

Global energy supplies were, until very recently, exploited and used around the world with little concern about the future. Most usage was in developed nations and most conspicuously in the United States, which has about 5% of global population but has used up to 35% of global energy supply. The world's energy supplies are used in a number of different application areas, such as transportation, power generation, heating and others.

The environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels were essentially ignored for many years from the start of the Industrial Revolution. Stories of the 'black satanic mills' of the British industrial midlands of the 19th century abound in literature. As the world's population grew and demand for power and industrial goods grew, the effects of all this fossil fuel burning became more apparent from increased smog, respiratory problems, dying trees, acid rain and other effects. It also caused increasingly political and economic considerations for governments, industry and the public. These consequences show up in different ways, some obvious such as visible tailpipe and smokestack emissions, others less visible in the form of unseen toxic and other environmentally unfriendly gases and both liquid and solid wastes.

And now the problem of global warming is taking center stage, adding more urgency to the quest for new and/or better solutions to pollution from fossil fuel burning. One aspect of this overall global problem, that of control of air pollution from coal-fired power plants, is the focus and subject of this report.                                

For decades, the U.S. has relied on coal-fired electric-generating plants as the foundation of its central power system. Until quite recently, about half the electricity generated in the U.S. came from burning coal. This percentage is continually dropping as power companies either retire older coal-fired plants or convert to natural gas; in 2011, the percentage was down to about 42%. Utilities buy and use about 90% of the coal mined in the United States.

Coal is a very complex material. As we discuss later, fossil fuels vary depending on their geographical origin. Thus, there are different types of coal, crude oil and natural gas, varying in chemical composition. 'Coal' is a generic term for a great number of mixtures of often large and complex organic compounds, usually also containing metals and other contaminants. Burning coal generates a lot of other emissions besides carbon dioxide and water, the normal products of organic oxidation.

Because of these emissions, coal has received a lot of criticism as a power-generation fuel source because of its contribution to air pollution. Air emissions standards, constantly under study and discussion in universities, utilities and government, have resulted in a re-evaluation of coal as a fuel source and the development of new technologies for reducing plant emissions. With deregulation of the utility market and the continual increase in the nation's energy requirements, the need for cost-effective and environmentally compliant technologies also increases.                                            

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This BCC Research report analyzes the trends and developments in the changing U.S. market for air pollution control technologies for coal-fired power plants. The report provides an overview of the coal-based power industry, including history, key regulations, types and characteristics of plant emissions, types of emission-control technologies, industry structure and future trends. Market estimates and forecasts are included for equipment to control the current major air pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Because of the very political nature of this business, our market analyses, estimates and forecasts are not at all precise, since experts and policy makers disagree about both the size and growth rate of the current and potential market.

This study focuses primarily in the United States but also has some international observations, given the global nature of business and technology these days when no nation or region can operate without consideration of the rest of the world. However, our focus is on the United States.

REASONS FOR DOING THE STUDY

During recent years, increasing emphasis has been placed on the development of air pollution control technologies that will allow the continued use of coal as an energy source while meeting the stringent requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990 and subsequent legislation and regulations. The report is designed to provide information of a professional nature and the technical data are dependent on the accuracy of data provided by manufacturers, researchers and government sources that we covered in our research. We have sorted through, organized and condensed information from a large amount of literature and other reference materials to compile this report. The report is not intended to be an endorsement of any energy source, company or technology.

CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE STUDY AND FOR WHOM

The report should be valuable and essential for vendors, research and development organizations, investors and engineering and construction firms who are faced with complex business decisions involving the future directions of energy development. It will also prove to be valuable to government agencies, legislators, policymakers and other stakeholders.

SCOPE AND FORMAT

The report provides an analysis of the market for air pollution control technologies and equipment for both utility and non-utility coal-fired power plants. It includes technologies designed for retrofitting existing plants to meet new standards, as well as technologies for repowering existing facilities and for new plant construction. The report characterizes the types of air emissions associated with coal-based power systems and the key regulations that drive technology requirements. It evaluates the current R&D status and effectiveness of control technologies for sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM) and so called hazardous air pollutants (HAPs, or 'air toxics'). The primary emphasis for HAP control at this time is on mercury emissions.

Since carbon dioxide (CO2) is not a toxic substance in the chemical and environmental control sense, it is not in the scope of this study even though there are current measures being taken to call it a pollutant for its greenhouse gas properties. We do discuss some of the current discussions regarding carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, but do not attempt to estimate and forecast such markets since they do not yet really exist at this time (and, since CO2 is not a toxic air pollutant, these markets are outside our scope).

The market analysis section in this report provides a detailed analysis and estimates of the markets in base year 2012 and five-year market forecasts for year 2017 for each major technology. Because of the extreme uncertainties in these times, both economic and political, we use a simple scenario analysis to estimate and forecast these markets. Any market estimates these days, especially in politically sensitive regulated arenas, are very speculative, and ours are no exception.

This report consists of eight narrative chapters, of which this is the first, plus an appendix with a glossary of important terms. The narrative and market analysis chapters that follow are:

The Summary is next and encapsulates our findings and conclusions, including a summary market table. It is the place where busy executives can find the major findings of the study in summary format.

Next is an Overview to the coal-based power industry. We start with an overview to coal, electricity generation and industrial processes used in the industry. We then discuss the primary air pollutants from coal-based power generation.

Next is a section devoted to air pollution control technologies for coal-fired power plants. We describe and discuss the major pollutants and the means for their control. We end with a review of recent patent activity.

Next is our market analysis chapter, with estimates and forecasts for methods to control the four primary types of air pollution from coal-based power plants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and hazardous air toxics (for these the focus in recent years is on mercury control). Our base estimate year is 2012 and we forecast to 2017. As noted, our market analyses and forecasts are in the form of a simple scenario analysis, with optimistic, pessimistic and most realistic scenarios.

The next chapter is devoted to industry structures and competitive analysis, with focus on the electric power generation and air pollution control industries.

We follow next with a chapter devoted to government, regulatory and public issues. The environment is a very politically sensitive issue, and governments, ranging from the federal Congress and agencies down to local pollution control districts are all working on this issue. We review current and pending legislation, the status of deregulation, note some current regulatory issues, and end with some current public perceptions and issues.

Our final narrative chapter is devoted to company profiles of several of the most significant companies in the air pollution control industry.

We end with an appendix, a glossary of important terms and acronyms that are important to this industry.

METHODOLOGY AND INFORMATION SOURCES

Extensive searches were made of the literature and the Internet, including many of the leading trade publications, as well as technical compendia, government publications and information from trade and other associations. Much product and market information was obtained from the principals involved in the industry. The information for our company profiles was obtained primarily from the companies themselves, especially the larger publicly owned firms. Other sources included directories, articles and Internet sites.                              

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