The Latest on “Clean Coal”: What Kemper’s $7.5B Broken Promise Means for the Clean Energy Transition

Once hailed the poster child of the “clean coal” revolution, developers recently imploded the $7.5B Kemper “Clean Coal” Project – $5B over budget! As the much-hyped “clean coal” era comes to a close, learn what it means for the power sector and what other options exist today.

Above: Southern Company’s Kemper Plant. Source

The Future is Clean (Coal?)

Many of us can recount politicians and pundits touting a future with abundant “clean coal”. The idea being we can generate power from coal with minimal greenhouse gas emissions. But can it work?

In 2010, Southern Company, the US’s second-largest utility headquartered in the American South, proclaimed the Kemper Coal Plant in Mississippi as clean coal’s breakthrough flagship project. They wanted to prove coal could compete in a low-carbon energy portfolio.

Southern Co sold the 582-megawatt (MW) gasification project to ratepayers and regulators on its ability to use cheap lignite coal – the world’s least efficient and most abundant form of coal. The utility promised to “provide affordable power to Mississippi customers while causing the least climate-changing pollution of any fossil fuel”.

That promise came with a hefty $2.4B pricetag that eventually ballooned to $7.5B. Earlier this month, Southern Co literally imploded the clean coal project, closing an expensive and final chapter in the future of coal in the US.

So what happened?

How Does Clean Coal Work Anyway?

To earn the “clean coal” moniker, the Kemper coal plant design relied on a novel combination of “gasification” technology and carbon capture and storage (CCS). What the heck does that mean?

Simply stated, gasification is complex. If the brightest coal engineers in the country given billions of dollars couldn’t scale the technology, I won’t waste your time with the intricacies. Just know it required temperatures over 1,800F, pressures higher than those experienced at 1,500 ft. underwater, and over 900,000 linear feet of metal piping at the Kemper plant. (For those overachievers, you can get the full scoop on gasification here.)

The Kemper plant also designed a series of technologies known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS works (in theory) by capturing carbon dioxide emissions generated during gasification and storing them underground in rock formations and aquifers. To date, the world does not have a CCS technology proven at scale.

CCS also required up to 1/4 of Kemper’s power output, decreasing efficiency and driving up costs.

So What Happened?

A 2016 New York Times investigation discovered that top Southern Co executives covered up construction problems. They were aware of fundamental design flaws at the plant and knew, years before they admitted it publicly, that their plans had gone awry.

Several former Southern Co engineers went public with their concerns. They noted Kemper’s construction delays and concerns with project viability. But the project continued to devour over $5B in cost overruns.

So… Solyndra?

Curiously, Kemper’s clean coal implosion received minimal coverage from the national media and media circuit. This reminded me of the Solyndra fiasco of 2011. For those who don’t recall, Solyndra was a Californian solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt soon after receiving $535 million in government-back loans. It never paid them back.

Many in the energy industry may recall the trouncing the national media gave Solyndra, and rightly so! You may recall front-page headlines across CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox News, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and dozens of other outlets.

The Solyndra debacle regrettably sunk $535 million in government-backed loans. For comparison, Southern Co’s “Clean Coal” nightmare left Mississippi ratepayers strapped with a $7.5 billion tab (14 Solyndras) and nothing to show for it.

Gizmodo was the only mainstream publication to note the end of this story. For the remainder of the national news syndicate, the scandal hardly garnered a peep.

Moving Beyond Coal

The Kemper plant missed all its targets and developers abandoned the “clean coal” project in July 2017 before imploding the coal plant last month. It’s important we learn our lesson.

But if “clean coal” isn’t in the cards, what other technologies will help us transition to the clean energy revolution? Consider what could have resulted if Southern Company decided to design an equivalent plant with solar and storage technologies available today?

According to a 2018 NREL report, a 600-megawatt (MW) photovoltaic (PV) plant, comparable to Kemper’s 585-MW design, paired with a 360-megawatt (4-hour) energy storage system located at different sites across Southern Co’s in Mississippi would have cost ratepayers about $1.2 billion. That’s 50% of Kemper’s original $2.4B price tag (before ballooning to $7.5B) in 2018 dollars. Solar and storage costs have continued to plummet over the last few years.

Time to Move Forward

After Southern Co’s [coal]ossal failure (sorry, couldn’t help it), are we ready to end the conversation on clean coal? The path forward, particularly in light of the upcoming COP26 meeting, requires significant investment in clean, abundant, local renewable energy.

Instead, perhaps it’s best to spend our time and resources investing in a future powered by affordable energy with technology that’s available today. There’s no need to make another catastrophic mistake, strapping ratepayers with billions in added costs and nothing to show for it.

About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at alex@alexkaufmanpe.com.

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