Monday, April 13, 2009

More on clean coal

Where coal and clean tech meet
by Martin LaMonica

SOMERSET, Mass.--When it comes to covering green technologies, the color can sometimes be black as coal.

On Monday I drove to Southern Massachusetts to visit GreatPoint Energy's $37 million Mayflower Clean Energy Center, a demonstration plant for converting coal to natural gas. Built down the road from the state's largest coal plant at the mouth of the Taunton River, the plant started producing natural gas last month and is now gathering data to optimize the operation.

As a technology reporter, it's fascinating to see the energy industry's version of "hardware"--a 200-foot-high reactor, silos holding thousands of pounds of feedstock, and all manner of pipes of valves. I also got to wear a hardhat.

Most people associate green tech with renewable energy--sun, wind, biomass, geothermal. In reality, a lot of energy technology is aimed at making conventional fuels cleaner, which is exactly GreatPoint Energy's mission: to convert dirty coal into cleaner-burning natural gas and to bury carbon dioxide emissions underground.

From a business perspective, GreatPoint Energy is one of many green-tech start-ups taking those first steps from labs to commercialization--a precarious transition that few have been able to make. The project itself is a test case for some potentially significant energy technologies--gasification and underground storage of carbon dioxide.

Gasification, which appears to be undergoing a quiet resurgence in energy, is being used to turn many different feedstocks--coal, biomass, and even municipal trash--into a gas that can later be burned for heat or electricity. Whether gasification technologies qualify for "clean energy" government incentives is still unclear, but backers say that it's a cleaner process than burning.

Read the whole story here