Liquid Coal and Biomass Plant, Nation’s First, Stirs Controversy in Pennsylvania

Environmental groups dispute 'green' claims, despite use of algae to absorb carbon dioxide

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Pennsylvania has begun a drive to build the first facility in the nation that would transform coal and biomass into jet fuel.

The Pennsylvania Financing Authority gave Houston-based startup Accelergy Corporation $175,000 earlier this month to help fund a study for a $1 billion coal-biomass-to-liquid (CBTL) production plant that would produce 8,000 to 10,000 barrels of fuel a day.

The funding will come out of the state’s clean energy coffers, despite outrage from critics. Observers say approval of the full facility is very likely.

State Rep. David. R. Kessler (D), the lawmaker behind the push, said it would be the first “clean domestic fuel” plant of its kind and would be a boon to clean fuels technology in the state.

“This study marks a tremendous step in seeding a renewable energy future for Pennsylvania,” Kessler said. “The clean fuels industry has the potential to revitalize our region, providing green jobs and solidifying our Commonwealth as a leader in the New Energy Economy.”

Supporters, like Kessler, argue that coal-based fuels are greener than conventional crude and ethanol.

But environmental groups remain adamantly opposed, warning that any ‘green’ claims are misleading.

Joseph Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, a statewide environmental group, said it is “absurd” to think of coal as clean energy.

“Modern technology might be able to reduce some of the emissions,” Minott told SolveClimate. “But coal from cradle to grave produces a tremendous amount of pollution, and there’s no way of getting around that.”

Accelergy, which teamed up with military contractor Raytheon and algae biotech firm A2BE Carbon Capture to develop the plant, says its gasification process would produce 20 percent fewer emissions than conventional sources. This is in large part due to the algae component developed by Denver-based A2BE.

The technology would soak up carbon dioxide as the liquid fuel is being made. Further, the oxygen released by the algae farms would be pumped back into the facility to create a more efficient way of using coal, the company claims.

Mark Allen, CEO and co-founder of A2BE, called the process a “very good first step” to cut the carbon footprint of coal-based fuels.

Air Force Leading the Charge

The leftover algae would be used to make a high-energy fertilizer trademarked by A2BE to grow crops and sequester heat-trapping CO2 in the soil, Allen told SolveClimate.

The announcement comes as the U.S military scrambles to secure flows of transportation fuel from non-petroleum-based domestic sources.

The U.S. Air Force is leading the charge, with a goal of getting 50 percent of its fuel spun from home-grown synthetic sources that deploy carbon capture technologies.

In March, Accelergy began production of its CBTL technology at a pilot facility at the University of North Dakota. The U.S Air Force is evaluating the process as the industry standard, the company says. Accelergy CEO Tim Vail said in a March news release that his firm is “the first to provide 100 percent synthetic jet fuel for the [U.S. Air Force].

“The Air Force will likely be the recipient of the fuel at the pilot scale,” Allen said of the Pennsylvania plant.

Kessler said the Pennsylvania plant would be built alongside a coal plant, produce electricity and fuel and would create 2,500 construction jobs and employ 700 to 1,000 people upon completion. 

Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth biggest coal-producing state.

For Minott, efforts to develop a “new use of coal” is at odds with the push to slow global warming.

“Finding more uses for coal seems to me just very counterproductive,” Minott said. “There are ways of producing tremendous amounts of electricity and energy that don’t pollute the environment and it seems to me that’s where taxpayer money should be going— not in continuing to exploit coal,” he added.

Allen said that even if all renewable sources and efficiency upgrades are maximized, the nation would still have an energy gap to fill over the next several decades.

“Inevitably coal gets used,” he added. “The integrated use of coal and biomass to get the fuel … does lower the CO2 emissions in the use of coal, even compared to the use of petroleum.”

Algae Gets Added to Mix

The technology to convert coal into liquid fuel is well-established, dating back to the 1920s. SASOL, a South African coal firm, is the world’s largest producer of coal-based liquid fuels and runs a plant that produces around 150,000 barrels a day.

The gasification process, known as Fischer-Tropsch, results in twice the levels of CO2 than oil.

“The best Fisher-Tropsch will get you for each ton of coal two barrels of fuel,” Allen said.

Accelergy’s technology would double that output to four barrels of fuel, he claims.

With coal liquefaction technology patented by ExxonMobil, venture capital-backed Accelergy began attracting interest from the Department of Defense in 2008. Its prototype plant will burn a biomass called camellia, a plant native to Europe and Central Asia that has been used produce vegetable oil and animal feed.

But it does not solve the problem of carbon pollution, Allen said. This, he added, is where algae comes in.

Allen claims that adding algae into the mix increases productivity to six barrels for every ton of coal. The technology is not running on a commercial scale and will debut with the Pennsylvania prototype, said Jeff Mettais, VP of business development at A2BE. 

Mettais told SolveClimate that A2BE is the “only algae production company involved” in a coal-to-liquids plant production.

Minott, of the Clean Air Council, said his group “certainly would look to stop” the plant. According to A2BE, there are now a number of major universities involved and momentum is building up.

“The universities, and industry and the political aspects are lining up around this in a very unique way to take this further through the pilot plant and then the real possibility that there will be an integrated refinery in Pennyslvania,” Allen said.