Unity Alliance hopes to commercialize CO2-controlled coal plants

Two companies, one based in Massachusetts and the other in Italy, said June 14 they are forming a joint venture devoted to developing carbon-free coal plants in the United States.

ThermoEnergy Corp. (OTCBB: TMEN) and ITEA S.p.A. announced in a news release that they will work together to promote, finance, design and build a 50- MW pilot plant and a 320-MW commercial facility in the United States using a “clean coal” technology called pressurized oxy-combustion.

The technology will be developed and marketed by their joint venture, Unity Power Alliance LLC. The parties stressed their CO2-control technology can be retrofitted to existing coal plants.

“Our strategy is to form alliances with engineering companies, utilities, independent power producers, air separators, service companies, CO2 pipeline companies, transportation companies, and other key industry stakeholders who believe near zero emissions fossil fuel power production is a desirable and achievable near-term goal,” said Unity Power Alliance Managing Director Robert Marrs.

“Over the next few weeks and months, we expect to announce the names of major power industry participants that will be joining the Unity Power Alliance to lend their support,” Marrs said.

“The engineering for the 320 MWe [project] is done but I do not want to release CAPEX estimates to the general public at this point in time,” Marrs said in an email response to questions from GenerationHub. He estimates that developing the 50-MW pilot plant could run anywhere from $50m to $75m.

“We have several target sites in mind already, mostly near logical CO2 sinks,” Marr said. The Alliance official said his group’s technology should prove more workable in the real world than other available oxy-combustion technologies.

Fuel economics don’t particularly scare Marrs either. Despite natural gas being priced at $2.50/mmBtu, coal will long remain a viable part of the energy mix – especially when provided with CO2 technology that can be retrofitted onto existing plants, Marrs said.

The goal is to accelerate the development of emissions-free coal-fired electric generation. The technology could enable utilities to continue burning inexpensive and abundant coal, while virtually eliminating both the traditional pollution (such as sulfur dioxide) from coal plants and the emissions of CO2 that theoretically cause climate change. Moreover, the technology can be retrofitted to existing coal plants.

By converting to pressurized oxy-combustion, the power industry could avoid shutting down scores of aging coal-fired facilities now threatened by tough new EPA pollution regulations, the companies said.

Typical coal plants burn coal in air at normal atmospheric pressure. The key advance in the patented ThermoEnergy and ITEA technology is burning the fuel in high-pressure oxygen instead of in regular air, the companies said. One advantage is that the coal burns more cleanly and efficiently, producing more electricity for a given amount of fuel. More important, the high pressure makes it possible to condense—or turn into liquid—the gasses that are normally emitted through the smokestack.

As a result, nearly 100% of conventional pollutants such as NOx, SO2, SO3 and mercury, along with CO2, can be captured and then safely disposed of, sequestered or recycled. In addition, the extracted water can be recycled. While experts say pressurized oxy-combustion holds tremendous promise, it’s not yet clear what the optimal pressure will be for commercial plants, the companies said.

ThermoEnergy holds patents for very high pressure systems, while ITEA has patents on approaches that use somewhat lower pressures. Together the companies’ patents cover a broad range of possible pressures. The agreement to give patent royalties to the joint venture gives Unity Power Alliance a powerful intellectual property position, along with the flexibility to test and deploy designs that will achieve optimal results and speed commercialization of the technology. 

ITEA has proven industrial experience with flameless pressurized oxy-combustion, and already operates a 5 MW thermal energy (MWth) in Italy that tests a wide variety of fuels. The company also has deployed a 15 MWth commercial plant in Singapore. ITEA’s efforts have been supported by Rome-based ENEL S.p.A., one of the world’s largest utilities. 

“ITEA with support from its parent company, the Sofinter Group, has done exceptional work in demonstrating and deploying pressurized oxy-combustion,” said Cary Bullock, Chairman and CEO of ThermoEnergy. “We are proud to have them as a partner in the Unity Power Alliance.”

Effort is latest in quest for CO2-free coal plants

Commercializing carbon controls for coal-fired generation has been a major quest in recent years for power companies and policy makers from North America to China.

Most of the attention has been focused upon integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) technology that could eventually be combined with a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project. Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) and Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) are investing heavily in IGCC projects in Indiana and Mississippi.

During the past couple of years the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the  FutureGen Alliance have scuttled plans for an IGCC in Illinois. Instead, the FutureGen 2.0 program would now upgrade Ameren’s Meredosia Unit 4 with oxy-combustion technology to capture 90% of the carbon emissions.

Like the Unity Power Alliance, FutureGen 2 said its current technology track envisions being able to repower existing coal plants to near-zero emission levels.

ThermoEnergy was incorporated in January 1988 for the purpose of developing and marketing advanced municipal and industrial wastewater treatment and carbon reducing power generation technologies.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.