Today’s NYTimes has an OpEd piece by a journalist, Gregg Easterbrook, extolling the virtues of IGCC, or Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plants, which burn coal.  The main virtue of this technology is that it can increase the efficiency of converting coal to energy, by gasifying the coal, rather than pulverizing it as in conventional systems, prior to combustion.  However, capital costs are far higher than for conventional plants. And one big question remains: do we really need to grow future energy production facilities of this type?

Energy consumption surely is down now, and assuming the economy ramps back up, we will be applying much better efficiencies. Better lighting, eliminating vampire power draining, improved manufacturing methods, attention to reducing computer power costs, and many other factors will help reduce or even eliminate the need for new, large, centralized coal-burning facilities such as IGCC plants. Decentralized, renewable energy really does seem like a feasible way to increase production to levels that we really can, and must, live within.

The OpEd piece notes that IGCC “plants can achieve near-zero emissions of toxic material and chemicals that form smog,” but I think we need to zero in on the word “can.” Other types of coal burning facilities can have “near-zero” emissions of such constituents, if enough technology and money are put into treating the gases, which appears to be the case for some IGCC plant being built or in planning stages.

One other important advantage of IGCC noted by Mr. Easterbrook is that that these plants may have characteristics making carbon sequestration feasible:

Beyond that, the promising technology of “sequestering” carbon dioxide — pumping it back into the ground to keep it out of atmosphere — appears for technical reasons to be impractical for conventional pulverized-coal power plants. But gasification plants have technical characteristics that should make “sequestration” of carbon feasible. A gasification power plant with sequestration would have around two-thirds lower greenhouse gases than a conventional coal-fired generating station.

Here, emphasis should be on the word “should.” Carbon sequestration is by no means been proven, and research into it is many years, if not decades, away from showing whether or not it is feasible for any type of power plant. For example, The Union of Concerned Scientists advises that the US implement regulations that “prevent the construction of any plant not employing CCS (carbon capture and storage) from the outset,” and that there should be small scale (initally), industry funded research on CCS , stating also that CCS:

has yet to be demonstrated in the form of commercial-scale, fully integrated projects at coal-fired power plants. Such demonstration projects are needed to determine the relative cost effectiveness of CCS compared with other carbon-reducing strategies, and to assess its environmental safety—particularly at the very large scale of deployment needed for CCS to contribute significantly to the fight against global warming.

These factors do not appear to square with the idea that IGCC is going to contribute effectively to our energy future.