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Gasification Technology - Page 3

 Introduction | History | Challenges | Benefits | Current Tech | Future Tech | Conclusions 

By Scott Miller — February 2011


Capital Costs:

The strongest objection raised against gasification is the capital costs required to build the facility but these costs are often misunderstood. When compared to oil, the capital costs to produce oil are much lower than the capital costs to produce synthetic fuels. The problem is that petroleum in its raw form is virtually useless – it has to be distilled into its various useful components whereas gasification can produce many different fuels directly. A weighted average of multiple studies commissioned by NETL suggests an estimated $7 billion per 100,000 barrels per day of capacity for synthetic fuels, or $700 billion overall. This investment is not just production – it is also the refining and post processing. When one considers that no new oil refineries have been constructed in the US since the 1970s, we have to view gasification as being a modernization of this aging infrastructure.

We also need to view this in the context of the amount of oil we import every year. We currently send over $250 billion per year to other nations for the purchase of oil when oil prices are $70. This is an infrastructure investment that would pay for itself in less than ten years on a national scale. And this doesn’t even include the military costs of keeping the Middle East quiet and friendly for oil exploitation (estimated by RAND at over $90 billion per year). Realistically, it would require a minimum of 15 years to build all of these facilities so the overall costs would average out to about $50 billion per year – a bargain compared to what we currently spend in the Middle East and elsewhere to keep conventional oil flowing.

Carbon Dioxide:

Gasification produces large amounts of carbon dioxide and this has led many environmental and other groups to oppose the technology. The NETL estimates for the cost of large-scale gasification include the costs associated with capturing and cleaning the CO2 so we might as well make use of the product. Within an energy independence construct, there are at least three potential markets for use of the purified carbon dioxide produced by plants like the GPSP:

  1. Enhanced Oil Recovery – At the GPSP, this is the market selected for its carbon dioxide. The gas is pipelined to older oil fields in Canada where it is forced into conventional wells. This process allows for greater conventional oil extraction while also sequestering the CO2 underground. It is estimated that this process could add 200 billion barrels of conventional oil to the US inventory.

  2. Fuel Production – If you have a clean supply of CO2 and can obtain a clean supply of hydrogen, you have the makings for just about any type of fuel you can think of. Hydrogen is currently produced by electrolysis using nuclear, geothermal or other renewable energies. The gasification infrastructure being proposed would generate in excess of one billion tons of CO2 annually so this is not an insignificant option.

  3. Algae Fuels – Much research is going into the use of algae for biomass and alcohol production capabilities. In closed systems, algae require nutrients to encourage growth. Carbon dioxide is an ideal nutrient for these applications and unlike conventional smokestacks, the CO2 from gasification is already cleaned.

NIMBY (Not In My BackYard):

The final major obstacle facing a comprehensive program of gasification is the problem of siting the facilities. Some people don't want the potential physical or environmental issues in the areas in which they live. This is as much an issue of education as anything; however the problem here is quite real. Before any gasification facility can be built, it must have the support of the local community. To alleviate some of the issues with this subject, there are specific types of communities that are much more likely to be supportive of gasification:

  •  Old Steel and Manufacturing towns – cities like Braddock PA and Detroit MI are ideal examples of where communities are in desperate need of jobs where the city is already generally supportive of “manufacturing” enterprises. Many of these cities are located near resources that can be used for feedstocks, particularly coal. The potential of new industry in a market that isn't going away any time soon would likely be well supported in these areas.

  •  Military Installations – there are currently over 400 military installations in the United States. Obviously many of these facilities are not suitable for this effort however many major military bases would be ideal. A typical military base will be remotely located with a small but generally highly tolerant local community. These communities are used to noises and smells that would be problematic in most locales. Larger bases also are generally equipped with significant energy and transportation resources. And at the end of the day, the land is federal land – if the Congress and DoD order a specific use for the land, that's what it gets used for, whether the EPA and environmentalists like it or not. And given that the US military is the single largest consumer of fuels in the world, it might make sense to have some production nearby.

  •  Large Urban areas – typically, for a project of this type, you wouldn't want to look at a large urban area but gasification offers some unique benefits for high density population areas. Gasification is capable of processing waste streams that cause problems in the larger cities. Things like sewage, municipal solids, food processing wastes and construction debris can all be used as gasifier feedstocks.

  •  Baseload Coal Power – anywhere coal is currently being used for baseload electricity generation should be evaluated as a potential site. Ideally, a nuclear, geothermal or appropriate renewable alternative should be considered for power generation while a gasification facility can use the existing coal transportation infrastructure for bringing in feedstocks. Not all facilities can accommodate both options but there should be a number of suitable sites. Long-term, these will need to be transitioned to renewable feedstocks but coal can assist in the transition today.

  •  Alaska – most renewable energy plans ignore the potential for the state of Alaska because of its cold climate. This is a mistake as the most commonly considered tree for biomass is the poplar, a species that grows prodigiously in our northernmost state. Alaska is also ideally positioned for producing hydrogen via geothermal energy and seawater to combine with CO2 to enhance production of synthetic fuels and chemicals.

 Introduction | History | Challenges | Benefits | Current Tech | Future Tech | Conclusions 

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