March 27, 2008

Study presents options for proposed power plant

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Officials at Southern Illinois University Carbondale today (March 27) announced they will explore several options as the University pursues a coal gasification power plant.

University officials received the results of the pre-feasibility study conducted by Black & Veatch Corp. in February. A grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity funded the study, designed to uncover any "fatal flaws" with the concept that would cause officials to reject the idea out of hand.

While the pre-feasibility study found no fatal flaw with the concept of building such a power plant on or near University property, University officials say the study also indicates they might be wise to pursue building a larger plant on a different site in cooperation with partners.

"The study represents the University's continuing efforts to research and explore ways in which to reduce our financial exposure to ever-increasing energy costs," Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard said.

Coal gasification is the process of using chemistry to turn solid coal into synthetic gas that is converted into electricity, fuels and chemicals. It is a potentially cleaner, more efficient means of generating power that can also can operate in conjunction with an effective carbon dioxide capture system.

The study found that coal gasification is a proven technology with many advantages, although there are a limited number of plants currently utilizing this technology. This lack of commercial application contributes to high cost estimates.

The University's current steam boilers produce 12 to 15 percent of the electricity needed to power the campus, and do so at less than half the cost of electricity the University purchases in the marketplace. This co-generation capability spurred officials' initial interest in studying the potential for greater energy independence.

University officials initially proposed building a 150- to 200-megawatt plant on one of three sites — west of the main SIUC campus in the McLafferty Annex area, in the Southern Hills area or near its coal research annex in nearby Carterville. The plant would fulfill several missions, such as underscoring SIUC's position as a leader in coal-based technology and supplying a reliable and predictably priced source of electrical power to the campus. Volatile energy prices are a bane to university communities as they struggle to control expenses.

In essence, a bigger plant, though more expensive to build, is more economical in terms of the cost per megawatt that it will generate, said John S. Mead, director of the Coal Extraction and Utilization Center at SIUC. A bigger plant takes greater advantage of certain economies of scale and ends up being cheaper in the long run.

Building a bigger plant, such as one capable of producing 300 megawatts or more, could open up other opportunities, such as supplying other state universities and buildings with power. SIUC, for instance, typically uses 13 or 14 megawatts and 20 megawatts at its peak. University leaders and others will need to investigate the possibility of supplying the other state offices or selling off the surplus energy a bigger plant would generate.

Because of the greater cost associated with building such a plant, the University also should investigate partnering with other entities for the project, officials said. Such partners might include utilities and other power producers, technology developers, coal producers and other investment firms and other power users, for instance. Partnering with other groups will defray the initial costs of engineering and building the plant and might provide additional expertise in marketing and delivering the power it supplies.

Philip S. Gatton, director of Plant and Service Operations at SIUC, said the report contains important information.

"While the information in the engineering study points out the soaring costs associated with new construction of the next generation of power plants, it also reveals that such an investment would produce clean, reliable and affordable electricity for the next 30 years," Gatton said.

The study also showed building a gasification power plant on one of the three proposed sites, while possible, is probably not practical, officials said. The three sites currently do not have the needed infrastructure in place to support such a plant, such as rail or heavy roads to convey coal into the site. Even if such expensive infrastructure were in place, the additional heavy activity and traffic associated with supplying and running a power plant might not mesh with the character of the areas surrounding the proposed sites.

Instead, Mead said the University could work with future partners to find a more suitable site to construct the power plant.

The University would bring important aspects to a team aimed at building the plant, Mead said.

"We bring the need for power, the research expertise, environmental advocacy and a position as a leader in the area," Mead said. "We would bring a lot of value to any team."