Visit to mercury workshops in Katowice and Warsaw and site visit to Belchatow Power Plant, Poland, Nov 2012

At the invitation of our Polish exco member, Ireneusz, Pyka, I gave a presentation at the GIG HQ in Katowice, Poland.  The meeting was attended by 30-40 representatives of GIG, the new Clean Coal Technology Centre in Katowice along with representatives from local coal producing, mining and power companies and academia. The UNEP global legally binding instrument on mercury is due to be completed early next year. There is also the sound of furious typing coming from the European Commission (EC) staff as they prepare BRefs (best available technology – BAT – reference documents) on mercury. Countries such as Poland are therefore eager to discover just how these impending legal activities will affect their national coal industry.  Unfortunately, it is anybody’s guess at this stage.
Emissions from coal combustion are only a small fraction of the concerns being addressed by the UNEP instrument. However, coal is certainly the sector of most concern and controversy. Regions such as North America and Europe are already demonstrating mercury reduction through co-benefit effects (from existing control technologies such as fabric filters and flue gas desulphurisation, FGD). These regions are therefore keen to promote an instrument with similar requirements for BAT which could achieve anything from 50->90% mercury reduction elsewhere in the world. However, economies in transition, such as India and African nations, are quick to argue that these requirements are likely to be costly, especially for those countries with limited access to energy for many of their populations, never mind existing requirements for pollution control systems such as FGD.  Discussion at the meeting focussed on how likely it is that the EC will set reduction requirements which would require further expensive retrofitting of mercury controls at coal-fired plants in countries such as Poland. I assured them that it was possible that, at some plants, existing flue gas treatments and minor changes in coal blending or oxidant addition could mean that mercury reduction would not pose a major economic and technical challenge. However, this will not be the case for all plants.
An interesting presentation was provided by researchers at GIG showing that a new, pilot-scale, pyrolysis treatment for coal could reduce mercury emissions by up to over 90% with only 7-8% reduction in the HHV of the coal. This could be a significant means for mercury reduction, especially in areas such as India and South East Asia, and Africa where coal cleaning could be a useful multi-pollutant control approach in regions where FGD are not technologically or economically likely. It will be interesting to follow the development of this process to commercial scale.
My 2nd meeting was “Rtec a sprawa polska – konwencja, ogranisczanie emisji, technologia”, a 1 day meeting held in Warsaw. The meeting was opened by Ms Bozena Adamska, the Minister for Power in Poland. The meeting was attended by representatives of some of the major power companies in Poland as well as other representatives from organisations and agencies connected with coal use. The meeting was held in Polish, so I had a very helpful  translator to facilitate the discussion. Aleksandra Tomczak, our colleague from the World Coal Association, gave an overview and discussion of the latest proposals for the UNEP working text  while I concentrated on giving a summary of the legislation in North America and potential legislation in the EU and what could be achieved with existing control technologies.
Once again, the discussion demonstrated general concern over how the European Commission may translate the UNEP treaty into EC legislation. We know from experience that the EC has ambitious goals with respect to pollution reduction and often sets legislation based on UNEP treaties but, at the same time, giving them more stringency and “bite”. The new flurry of activity at the EC on mercury Brefs certainly implies that something is on the horizon. But it is possible that the EU requirements for FGD across the fleet by the early 2020s will provide a continued decline in mercury. The EU has been achieving “free” mercury reduction since the 1980s. In some plants this will mean that >80% mercury reduction is already occurring, despite no mercury-specific action being taken. Will this be enough to appease the EC? That remains to be seen. When countries such as North America, Japan and even China are spending billions on mercury-specific control technologies, it is hard to believe that the EC will not follow suit eventually.
Leading the UNEP Coal Partnership, IEA CCC has been active in producing tools such as the POG (Process Optimisation Guidance Document) and iPOG (an interactive mercury emission calculation tool) which provide guidance for economic options for mercury control which may be more appropriate for those regions who have limited experience on mercury control.  These tools were provided to delegates at both meetings on data-sticks and are available as free download from the UNEP and IEA CCC website.
In between these two meetings I enjoyed a road trip out to the Belchatow Power Plant.
I have seen several coal mines and power plants during my career but this plant is truly magnificent. There are 12 units of conventional lignite combustion and one, newer, unit for supercritical combustion. The plant is fitted with FGD and there are plans for CCS capture in the future. Together the units produce over 4,000 MW of power, providing between 20 and 25% of Poland’s primary energy demand. The plant is situated right next to the opencast lignite mine which, in itself, is breath-taking in scale. The mine provides lignite directly to the plant via over 30km of conveyor belts. Reclamation is on-going as the mine follows the coal seams down into the local valley. The mine has several decades of lignite remaining but the plant has already sourced a potential new seam around 40-50 km away which could provide lignite to the plant for decades to come, possibly via a new rail link. The mine employs over 6,000 members of the local community, and the plant employs a further 4,500 staff. I am told that the coal taxes and high rate of employment resulting from the plants location means that this local community is one of the more affluent within Poland.
Inside the plant there is one of the largest yet cleanest and quietest turbine halls I have ever visited (and I have visited many, including Isogo in Japan). Unlike some plants, the sound level is controlled via soundproofing systems and so ear plugs are not necessary.  With 12 turbines and generators in series, the turbine hall stretches to almost a km long, with staff using bicycles to get around. Since the units will built in series, with 2 units being constructed every few years, it is possible to compare the old analogue/graph paper systems in the older control rooms with the flat plasma screens and computer systems in the newer control rooms. It was clear from the relaxed attitude of those in the control room that the plant, although rarely, if ever, offline, runs smoothly and efficiently with emissions well below the current EU limits.
Curiously, the local authorities do NOT allow the use of ash from the plant to be used as back-fill or soil amendment material at the local mine during reclamation. This seems rather short-sighted as this would not only provide a convenient disposal option for the ash but, in many cases, the ash from lignite plants can actually be very beneficial in backfill and soil amendment practices. The gypsum from the FGD units is provided to a wallboard production industry within a few km of the plant.
Unfortunately, the late time of day and the overcast sky means that my attempts at capturing the beauty of the plant and the mine with the little camera on my iPhone are disappointing. However, I can assure you that the scenery is quite captivating and pays homage to the size, scale and efficiency of what can be achieved with lignite in energy generation in the 21st century.