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In Fairbanks, coal remains key: Modern systems burn cleanly, use heat efficiently

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Posted: Sunday, July 8, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:36 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community perspective

On June 24, the Daily News-Miner printed an article by professor Doug Reynolds in the business section about the “coal” option for Fairbanks energy problems. I’m part of a small group of local residents who have studied the pollution, economic and energy problems of the area and who also believe coal is the logical solution for Fairbanks.

A fuel source should be evaluated on the basis of its long-term availability, cost and efficiency. It should also cause no air pollution problems. It should create jobs and stability here on a steady, year-round basis rather than the spurt growth and catastrophic decline caused by outside petroleum interests.

Electric power generation combined with steam and hot water district heat (cogeneration), fueled by coal, is clean, extremely efficient and economical and would add to our economic stability as no other resource can.

The two oil-fired turbine generators operated by Golden Valley Electric Association on Illinois Street are 25 percent efficient, wasting 75 percent of the fuel. On Sept. 23, 2009, according to Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation test results, they were emitting an average of 0.0417 grains of particulate per cubic foot of emissions. (Note that these two units emit near the living level rather than the much higher coal stacks, thereby creating more pollution at the level of the inversion layer we breathe.)

In contrast, on Dec. 7, 2010, the Eielson coal-fired cogeneration plant was tested, and the particulate emissions were an average of 0.00005 gr/scf. We have not determined the exact combined efficiency, but cogeneration can reach 94 percent in a new plant (Power Engineering, May 1).

These data are factual proof of the tremendous environmental and efficiency advantages of coal compared to oil.

Closer to home, Brookhaven National Labratory reports that the average home oil-fired furnace releases between 0.024 and 0.006 pounds of particulates per million Btus. Most 10- to 20-year-old units emit at the higher level, with only a few of the newer oil-fired units emitting at the 0.006 level. So the average home-heating unit emits at least twice as much particulate matter as the Eielson power house, proportionate to energy consumed.

Neither Fort Wainwright or Eielson create a particulate problem. Fort Wainwright may have some slight drift-over from the surrounding area, but it has never violated Environmental Protection Agency limits. The obvious reason: It also uses district heating with coal.

The potential sulfur, nitrogen and heavy metal vapor emissions in coal-fired plants are virtually eliminated by high-temperature firing and stack scrubbing techniques used in modern power installations. Eielson was tested for mercury emissions on March 28, 2007, and determined acceptable at 0.00000228 pounds per mmBtu, far below regulatory standards.

Uncontrolled coal firing does produce twice the carbon dioxide (a “greenhouse” gas) that oil-fired generation emits. Natural gas generation produces about 35 percent of the carbon dioxide that coal does. However, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is a currently working technology and recycles carbon dioxide into the fizz in soft drinks and many other commercial products. A power plant in Cumberland, Md., already captures and markets 110,000 tons each year.

Also, fugitive methane from natural gas exploration, production, storage, transportation and distribution systems is a much greater greenhouse gas problem than previously thought. As a greenhouse gas, methane is five times more effective than coal-fired carbon dioxide and is much harder to control.

Additionally, gas is most valuable as a mobile fuel. It is also used in the petrochemical industry. It should not be used in a stationary generation plant where coal can be used. It should never be burned in an inefficient power-producing process simply because EPA has no concern for fuel efficiency and waste of our resources.

Coal is by far the cleanest, cheapest and most efficient power and heat source available to us. Areawide district heating in the Fairbanks area would eliminate our particulate problem, and a new 400-megawatt plant by the Tanana River in south Fairbanks with the current technology would stabilize our energy requirements for the next 50 years at a price level near that of Anchorage, which gas will never do unless it is discovered in south Fairbanks.

Coal has obvious advantage in local economic impact and control. It is true that EPA regulations continue to focus on coal, thereby discouraging its use by investors who are shaken by the emotion guiding EPA’s erratic regulatory behavior. That is not an excuse for letting the facts go unpublished.

Ross Adkins of Fairbanks has lived in Alaska since 1960, working as a geodetic surveyor, electrical utility consultant and civil engineer. In North Pole, he owns Forbes Laundry, for which he designed unique heat recovery and water recycling systems.

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