Solar Powered Coal Plant?

Mountain of coal for use in power plants[social_buttons]Is coal going clean?

Not exactly. But new efforts are seeking to give this notoriously dirty fuel source a sustainable and renewable boost.

The Electric Power Research Institute has launched two projects that will infuse solar energy into already existing coal fired electrical generation plants.  Solar power and coal have traditionally been the poster children of right and wrong, clean and dirty, sustainable and finite in terms of energy production. But now these two resources at spectrum’s ends are being brought together.

The two power plants that have adopted this solar infusion process are Tri-State’s 245 megawatt Escalante generating station in Prewitt, New Mexico, and Progress Energy’s 742 megawatt plant in Roxboro, North Carolina.

Coal is burned to produce steam, whose pressure then turns a generator’s turbines to produce electric power. Now add solar. The two pilot installations collect and concentrate the sun’s rays to boil water into steam, which is then fed into the coal-generated steam stream to augment its power.

Mirrors collect and concentrate solar rays to harness heat energy

The idea has promise. The added rays of sunshine would conceivably allow a plant to produce the same amount of power while burning and emitting less coal and carbon respectively. Like our beloved hybrid cars, this effort seeks to take a dirty source of energy we all use and give it a cleaner and more sustainable kick in the pants.

If we accept the idea that like our cars, coal fired plants won’t disappear anytime soon, the idea of using renewables to help these fossil-fueled dinosaurs lumber reluctantly into the future is an appealing premise.

This philosophy is being tried across the dirty-energy spectrum, as in the case of trans-oceanic vessels (oil tankers included) fitted with what are essentially parasails. These glorified kites catch wind resources moving in concert with the vessel, and save fuel by helping to pull the ship on its way.

  1. Mike

    I think we will be seeing a lot more variations on the hybrid power plant theme. As it stands, we still have sizeable coal reserves left – the only thing holding it back is it’s ‘dirty’ reputation. The newer generation of ‘scrubbers’ that remove a lot of the pollution from the exhaust smoke are a massive improvement on the older versions. The problem is nobody really wants to hear about such boring technology. Slap a solar thermal ‘boiler’ to your plant and you’ll get good press. With solar energy reducing the amount of coal needed and the latest scrubbers working quietly in the background, this type of plant could form a significant part of our future energy supply.


  2. Sean Sullivan

    Yeah, Mike. Seems like the stuff that’s not considered “sexy” – things like conservation and efficiency measures – are the cheapest and most effective to reduce a footprint. Hopefully more people with catch on to this “boring” stuff happening in the background. -Sean

  3. Clive

    Mike’s comment was short-sighted. The only thing holding coal back is it’s dirty reputation? The only? What about that massive contamination spill? What about the fact it has the highest concentration of CO2 of all the combustable energy sources? What about the fact that clearing entire tops of mountains leaves entire landscapes unusable? See http://www.ran.org for more dramatic details. I think Mike’s comment was an understatement that seems like it might be coming fm a coal PR firm. A plant.

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