University of Kentucky researchers have landed a $3 million federal grant that could not come at a better time in a state that already has seen thousands of good-paying coal mining jobs disappear and the chances of new coal-fired power plants being built looking doubtful under proposed new Environmental Protection Agency air quality regulations.
Under the grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, UK researchers will work on developing technology to sharply reduce the costs generated by preventing carbon pollution from spewing into the air from coal-burning power plants. UK researchers hope their work eventually yields commercial applications that will boost coal-based electricity, benefiting miners, utility companies and ratepayers while still protecting the environment by reducing greenhouse emissions from burning coal and other fossil fuels.
The grant will support a project at UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research to promote cleaner emissions from power plants.
“Obviously coal-fired power generation is facing some very big challenges,” said Rodney Andrews, the UK center’s director, in announcing the grant. “These are the sorts of projects we need to be doing if we’re going to continue to use coal to generate base-load power.”
Thirty years ago state tax dollars funded the Kentucky Tobacco Institute at UK, which by law was assigned the task of helping to reduce the risk of health problems related the smoking. Ultimately, the Tobacco Institute joined other researchers in concluding that all tobacco use was harmful to one’s health and the Tobacco Institute shut its doors.
Like those who concluded all tobacco use is harmful, some believe all carbon-based fuel is harmful and should be greatly reduced, However, unlike the work at the old Tobacco Institute, the research being done by the new UK study is not seeking an impossible dream. While the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants does extensive damage to the environment and has been cited as the major cause of climate change, we believe technology can greatly reduce emissions from coal-fired plants and do so at a cost that keeps coal as an affordable option for producing electricity. As the major research university in a state where coal mining is so important to our economy, the University of Kentucky should be a leader is developing this new technology.
Weak demand, lower natural gas prices and stricter federal regulations already have forced companies to idle mines and lay off workers by the hundreds in eastern Kentucky. The region lost about 4,000 mining jobs in 2012, according to data compiled by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. James River Coal recently said it was laying off 525 full-time workers at mines in five eastern Kentucky counties.
The UK project is aimed at making technology available that can capture the heat-trapping pollution at a much lower cost to utilities. UK researchers are working on a process that would require the use of much smaller scrubbers to produce cleaner emissions at coal-burning power plants. The scrubbers amount to a major cost to the process of capturing and storing carbon from power plants.
UK is contributing $242,615 to the project, and nearly $500,000 more is coming from an industry-based research consortium.
Coal remains abundant in the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia. The key is to find a way to reduce the pollution is causes. If that can’t be done and regulations make coal too costly to use, then the best paying jobs in many rural counties will disappear and two of the nation’s poorest states will become that much poorer.