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Clean Coal Technologies Conference, Sardinia, May 2017

Last week our biennial international conference on clean coal technologies, ‘CCT2017’, took place very successfully in Cagliari, Sardinia, with the great help of local research institute and hosts Sotacarbo. With around 250 delegates representing industry, academia, and government from 31 different countries, this was one of the biggest CCTs of recent years, highlighting the ongoing global relevance of the coal industry and the growing need for technologies which can reduce its environmental impact. The conference covers 27 technical sessions over three days, as well as keynotes, plenaries and panels, so in this blog I can only provide a small glimpse of the sessions I attended. 

Following an evening reception on a picturesque terrace in Cagliari’s hill-top old town, we kicked off the conference on Tuesday morning with scene-setting keynotes from Jean-Francois Gagne –  the head of energy technology policy at the IEA in Paris, and Ashok Ganesan – general manager of steam plant at GE Power. Both speakers emphasised the growth in coal power in India and South-East Asia, where it is playing a key role in bringing electricity to many of the billion people worldwide who are currently without, and the clear need for this growth to make use of the most efficient available technologies. Since acquiring Alstom Power two years ago, GE holds a huge share of the global thermal power plant market and has strongly promoted its high-efficiency technologies – even opening a dedicated centre for excellence in steam power efficiency earlier this year. The manufacturer is particularly focussed on bringing coal plant into the digital age, and claim that efficiencies can be pushed towards 50% simply through upgrades exploiting using intelligent control systems, ‘big data’, and more integrated operation of plant.     

In the opening technical session we heard more from developers and users of state-of-the-art coal plant around the world, from Japan to Dubai, Denmark, and China. In China, Waigaoqiao No. 3 Power Plant in Shanghai has become famous in the coal community and beyond for obtaining record efficiencies through a series of ingenious upgrades employed by general manager Prof. Feng Weizhong. The latest and most significant innovation is to raise the high pressure turbine to the level of the furnace superheaters – massively reducing the length of expensive steam pipe required and associated efficiency losses. This idea will be implemented for the first time at the new Pingshan power plant and, along with a double reheat steam cycle and other measures tested at Waigaoqiao, should approach 50% efficiency using conventional steam temperatures of up to 630áµ’C. With construction starting this year, the 1350 MW unit could be operating in 2019. Meanwhile in Japan, MHPS are leading the world in development of IGCC plant, with their air-blown Nakoso demonstration having operated commercially since 2013 and two scaled-up units scheduled to begin operation in 2020. These new 540 MW units at Nakoso and Hirono could reach up to 48% efficiency, and offer greater fuel flexibility than conventional USC plant.

On Wednesday, an interesting session looked at how coal plants in several regions are coping with the shift from baseload operation to the role of providing backup to renewable generation. Work commissioned by the World Energy Council is studying how coal operators can face difficult decisions over when to invest in plant upgrades and how to maximise profit in highly competitive energy markets. On the technical side, both Reliance Power in India and VGB Powertech in Germany described how constant cycling of coal plants can reduce efficiency, increase emissions, and accelerate material failures. However, VGB noted that equipment failures could also be rising due to ageing plant and reduced maintenance budgets, and they plan to investigate further into root causes.

The second day concluded with a new idea for CCT – the ‘Energy Trilemma’ panel session, which aimed to bring in experts from outside the coal industry to discuss the challenges facing the whole energy sector. Craig Morris from the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam detailed the progress of Germany’s Energiewende and its goal of achieving around 70% renewable energy by 2050. Relying largely on gas power as flexible backup, nuclear and coal have no place in this picture, and CCS has been effectively banned in the country. Nevertheless, Charles Soothill from the Zero Emissions Platform maintained that CCS must play a role in decarbonising Europe at lowest cost, and emphasised the challenge of energy for heating. While Nick Butler from Kings College London thought coal would be around for a while as a ‘fuel of the poor’, Chandra Bhushan offered a more optimistic view of renewables growth in India. Much of the impassioned debate in this area seems to stem from differing views over the role currently inadequate energy storage technologies can practically play in the near future.

Carbon capture and storage was featured throughout the conference, with a number of technical sessions looking at new capture technologies from chemical looping to advanced CO2 separation membranes, and culminating in some higher level perspectives on the status of CCS on the final day. Amongst these, an update on the ongoing tribulations of the ROAD project in Rotterdam was particularly informative of the challenges facing the technology. Now Europe’s only remaining large-scale CCS power project, ROAD was put on ice in 2012 due to the collapse of the EU ETS CO2 price, but reactivated in 2015 based on a new model, including a lower cost storage site, Opex funding from the EU’s ERA-NET programme, and capital grants from various sources. However, with a strong political movement to close all coal units in the Netherlands and a ruling coalition still to be formed in the wake of March’s election, the project is still hanging in the balance. A more positive perspective was provided by the US National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is seeing three large demonstrations come to fruition this year, including the coal-based projects of Petra Nova and Kemper County. These have seen contrasting fortunes, with the former project coming in on schedule and under budget while the (larger and more technically ambitious) IGCC plant at Kemper has been beset by delays and cost overruns. A lively panel debate on the future of CCS saw pro-CCS ENGO Bellona call on the coal industry to do more to develop the technology, although IEA panellist Samantha McCulloch noted that much of the global coal power sector is state-owned and is often reliant on oil and gas industry involvement to provide subsurface expertise.

Several other sessions throughout the event covered developments in conventional pollutant controls which have been in large part triggered by strict new emissions standards in the US, EU, and India. These include a host of approaches to achieving very low NOx emissions while avoiding costly SCR installations, multipollutant control systems, and new technologies for meeting mercury emissions limits. Other topics covered are too numerous to cover in detail, but included interesting sessions on the new supercritical CO2 turbines which could revolutionise thermal power generation, biomass preparation and cofiring, developments in underground coal gasification, and the ever-present issue of social acceptance.

With such a packed programme, I hope delegates found some time to visit the beautiful city of Cagliari and some of the rest of the island. Besides our visit to the old town for Monday’s reception, the medieval convent of San Giuseppe provided an atmospheric setting for the gala dinner and showcased Sardinia’s rich culture of fine food and wine. On the final day of the conference, a few dozen delegates made the trip out to the island’s historic coal mining region of Sulcis to visit Sotacarbo’s research facility and the ‘Grazia Deledda’ coal plant, famous for its 350 MW CFB unit.

Presentation slides from all the talks will be available from the programme page of the conference website (https://www.cct2017.org/) over the next few days, and are accessible only to delegates for the first six months. I’d like to thank everyone who attended and presented, and hope to see you all at the next event which is likely to leave Europe for the first time and head to South Africa!

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