Conference Looks at Low-grade Coal   

by Clair Johnson, Gazette Staff
Billings Gazette
13 October 2004

Western coal can play a major role in the country's energy future, a Department of Energy (DOE) official told a gathering at a coal conference Tuesday in Billings.

"We need Western coal,'' said Rita Bajura, director of DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Bajura was the opening speaker at the "Western Fuels Symposium: 19th International Conference on Lignite, Brown and Subbituminous Coals" being held at the Holiday Inn Grand Montana. The conference runs through Thursday.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., was the luncheon speaker.

The conference is examining the role of low-rank coals - like lignite, brown and subbituminous coals - which have a lower heat content because they have less carbon, higher moisture and greater impurities than other types of coals. Lignite coals are widespread in Eastern Montana and western North Dakota.

The United States has enough coal to last hundreds of years and can provide clean and secure supplies of low-cost energy, conference sponsors said. Low-rank coals comprise about half of both current use and U.S. reserves and are the largest indigenous energy resource in the United States, including Alaska, and in Russia, Central Europe and much of the Pacific Rim.

Low-rank  coals also face  major  challenges,  from  environmental concerns with mercury and fine particulate emissions to the application of more efficient combustion and gasification technologies.


subbituminous coal*

Dark-brown to black coal, intermediate in rank between lignite and bituminous coal.

It contains less water and is harder than lignite, making it easier to transport, store, and use. It has lower heating value than bituminous coal, but its sulfur content is often low, so that a number of coal-fired electric-power plants have switched from bituminous to subbituminous coal and lignite (which also tends to have relatively low sulfur). 

Subbituminous deposits are found in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Australia, and China.


In discussing some of the environmental concerns, Bajura called climate change an "interesting'' issue. 

"Some people believe in it. Some people don't,'' she said.

Science, she said, is unlikely to prove unequivocally whether the earth's climate is warming because of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. But governments and businesses are acting on their own to lower emissions, she said.

Because carbon is the heart of coal, dealing with carbon dioxide emissions is about ?500 million times more complicated'' than cutting back emissions of sulfur dioxide, for example, Bajura said.

While carbon dioxide emissions from coal utilities are a significant source, Bajura said society has to address all sources of carbon dioxide, such as transportation, to reach goals of stabilizing the atmosphere.

Bajura said options being considered include going to renewable energy, improving efficiency and sequestering or storing carbon dioxide.

The DOE, she said, has two demonstration power plants using a clean coal technology called integrated gasification combined cycle. The challenge there, she said, is to reduce the cost and improve reliability and availability.

Sequestering carbon by capturing emissions at the plant for storage or storing the gas naturally are other options. "Sequestration is feasible,'' Bajura said. "There's clearly plenty of storage capacity worldwide.''

The country can create an "energy future that is secure, reliable, affordable and environmentally acceptable,'' Bajura said.

Burns also said a team approach is important for developing an energy policy. "We need science and technology people like you,'' he told conference participants. And, he said, the country needs people with a common-sense approach to the task.

"Coal will be part of the energy mix,'' Burns said. Coal is readily accessible and "we can reclaim behind it,'' the senator said.

The country also needs an energy policy that will provide more spending for alternative fuels. "We've got to do that. That's part of the mix,'' Burns said.

An energy bill currently languishes in Congress, and Burns said he doesn't know if one would be passed before the session adjourns. Controversy over MTBE, a gasoline additive that is harmful to groundwater, "stopped everything,'' Burns said.

The conference is sponsored by the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center, the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory and the Electric Power Research Institute. About 150 people from 29 states and five countries are attending.


* "subbituminous coal" Britannica Concise Encyclopedia  from Encyclopędia Britannica Premium Service.
[Accessed 14 October 2004].


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.