Industry insiders sour on technology for Iron Range ‘clean coal’ boondoggle

There hasn’t been much to report about Excelsior Energy’s boondoggle proposed Mesaba Energy Project, a coal gasification power plant that would be situated on the Iron Range. The state PUC has not scheduled a final decision on whether or not to force Xcel Energy to buy the high-priced theoretical electricity that would be produced if this $2.3 billion-plus white elephant ever gets off the ground. You recall that the idea we’re all supposed to buy is that we’re building this sure-thing power plant that will absolutely be cleaner and absolutely be reliable, no matter what, no backsies.

Well, this story from Environment and Energy News, a trade journal, provides another reason to further doubt the claims made by Excelsior’s officials and political supporters (bold emphasis mine):

CLIMATE: Carbon storage technology is far from ready, utility execs warn
(06/17/2008)
Katherine Ling, E&ENews PM reporter

TORONTO — Efforts to characterize carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology as a viable short-term “cure-all” for coal-burning power plants’ greenhouse emissions have been “way overblown,” the outgoing chairman of the leading utility industry group said today.

“It is a technology that [scientists] are comfortable can work,” said Jeff Sterba, the Edison Electric Institute’s outgoing chairman and chief executive of Albuquerque-based PNM Resources. “But is it commercially deployable in 10 years? No.”

EEI incoming Chairman David Ratcliffe, CEO of Southern Co., said policymakers and stakeholders must understand that no legislative deadline will speed CCS’s development.

“We undersold how complex and how difficult [sequestration on a large scale] is,” Ratcliffe said at the institute’s annual meeting here. “It is absolutely critical that we inform policy debate with the best reality about technological availability that we can. … We can’t plug in CCS in five years. You can have legislation that says that all day long, but it isn’t going to be there.”

Added Jim Rogers, Duke Energy’s CEO and a former institute chairman, “CCS as a magical technology that solves the carbon problem for coal plants is oversold. … I think there is a lot to learn, and it is going to take us a lot longer for us to figure it out than a lot of us think.”

The three said coal must be a part of the energy picture and a number of technologies must be considered to control emissions.

Under certain strategies that could be adopted, you may find yourself in a position where the CCS is not adequately developed and the retrofitting technology is too expensive, and we could find ourselves in the position of prematurely shutting down coal units,” Sterba said.

If we end up with politicians making decisions about the success or failure of a technology, we have failed.”

You’ll note that the people questioning CCS technology are not anti-coal extremists. These are people who openly support coal-fired electricity. If this is the reality inside the industry there is no way we should ever expect private interests to fund the Mesaba project, nor should we expect that project to work the way it’s supposed to. Certainly not by 2012 as proposed by Excelsior. In short, the Mesaba Energy Project is an embarrassing mess for which no one, especially its backers, will ever willingly take the blame.

The people of the Iron Range, by virtue of decisions made by our elected leaders and Iron Range Resources, have purchased a time share on an underwater island. We could buy scuba gear and try to keep our neighbors from finding out, or we could just get smart and walk away. Other economic development projects are far more likely to succeed, so fortunately this mistake can be overcome.

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