The Cooperative Research Network pursues new solutions that help Michigan electric co-ops deliver safe, reliable and affordable power to you.

Despite the recent “green” energy revolution and the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling rigs across America, our nation’s primary fuel for producing electricity is coal—as it has been for over a century. Electricity generated by coal fell from 42 percent in 2011 to 37.5 percent in 2012, largely because of low natural gas prices, the retirement of older coal-fired power plants due to new emissions regulations from the Environmental

Protection Agency (EPA), and uncertainty about further regulations. But coal is far from dead. Electricity from coal is predicted to rise about 3 percent this year while the natural gas contribution drops from 30.5 percent to 27.3 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Short-Term Energy Outlook. And, natural gas prices are forecasted to rise this year due to higher demand and a slowdown in production.

“Coal still has a future as a source of electricity,” says Craig Borr, president/CEO of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association. “Whether you are for or against the use of coal to generate electricity, the fact is the United States remains home to the world’s largest coal reserves. That’s why electric co-ops are fully behind efforts to explore and test clean-coal technologies.”

One driver is the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, designed to significantly curb emissions of hazardous air pollutants (i.e., mercury and arsenic) from coal- and oil-fired plants 25 MW or larger by 2016. Some coal-fired plants will be shut down, rather than retrofitted, because the needed changes would be too costly to implement.

Electric co-ops and their trade association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), are exploring new approaches to burn coal more cleanly. NRECA’s Cooperative Research Network (CRN) recently finished demonstrating an innovative new multi-pollutant control system that shows promise for helping coal-fired power plants meet stringent EPA emissions standards at a fraction of the cost of traditional measures.

The demonstration was conducted in July 2012 at an Arizona generation and transmission co-op (G&T). The results showed significant emission reductions by combining mercury controls—which CRN successfully tested earlier at a Texas G&T—with trona (a naturally occurring mineral similar to baking soda). The tested technologies also cut the cost of meeting new environmental rules by a factor of five to 10.

Results for these full-scale power plants were very encouraging, but based on short-term runs, says John Hewa Jr., NRECA vice president of engineering, research & technical services. “To verify long-term performance, the results need to be confirmed with extended trials.”

Electric co-ops support the multi-pollutant control technologies CRN is studying because they can learn how to best use one of our most abundant natural resources, coal, to continue providing safe, reliable and environmentally responsible power at the lowest possible rates.

-Angela Perez