Fresno Bee: HECA may become model for clean energy

The Fresno Bee

A new idea for clean energy in Kern County

But some air activists object to projected pollution

By Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee    Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010       VIEW SOURCE


A $2 billion power plant in Kern County using notoriously dirty coal and petroleum coke conjures images of soot pouring into a brown skyline — an idea seemingly dead on arrival in one of the nation’s worst air basins.

But it may become a model for clean energy instead.

Forget the smoke. Imagine 2,600-degree heat in a sealed chamber vaporizing coal and petroleum coke — hard, black leftovers from refineries — to extract a highly prized fuel: hydrogen.

Using the dregs of fossil fuel, this proposed project west of Bakersfield would be the state’s first large, hydrogen-fired electricity project. Many experts say there is no similar project of this size anywhere in the nation.

The main stumbling block: It would produce more ozone-making gas than comparable natural gas-fired plants, which would be a deal-breaker for many environmentalists.

But project owner Hydrogen Energy California of Long Beach says the problem would be cleared up in the first two years of operation. The company, a joint venture of global energy giants BP and Rio Tinto, put up nearly $700,000 to help reduce nearby farm and city pollution during that time. It hopes to open the plant in 2015.

The California Energy Commission’s initial report released this year was positive, and the state energy permit is expected to be granted next year. Valley air quality officials think the company can control the ozone-making gas. And Kern County elected officials are impressed with the plans.

Activists are not satisfied with Hydrogen Energy’s plan to reduce the ozone-making gas. Nor do they like the idea of the pollution coming from rail transportation of coal from Utah or trucking of the petroleum coke from Los Angeles or other areas.

The nonprofit Association of Irritated Residents in Kern County is opposing the plant’s state permit, which is the last major permitting hurdle for the plant.

“We cannot afford more needless pollution, such as this experimental power plant,” said Tom Franz of the association. “It is outrageous that they will bring such dirty fuels to Kern County.”

Kern is a good location, close to trucking and rail lines to bring in the coal and petroleum coke, Hydrogen Energy officials said. The established oil fields nearby provide a convenient and safe place to bury climate-warming carbon dioxide from the project.

The plant, proposed on 473 acres in an isolated place seven miles west of Bakersfield, would produce about 250 megawatts, funneled into California’s electric grid. It could provide power for about 150,000 homes.

The construction phase would create 1,500 jobs for three years, said spokeswoman Tiffany Rau. After construction, the plant would provide 100 to 150 skilled jobs.

Hydrogen Energy also promises a lot of environmentally friendly features. Aside from extracting hydrogen cleanly from dirty fuels, it would capture 90% of the carbon dioxide produced in the process.

The production of carbon dioxide is unavoidable, officials say. It occurs when the coal and petroleum coke are broken down with high heat in a process called “gasification” to harvest hydrogen.

The gasification is needed because hydrogen isn’t readily available in pure form. It must be separated from such sources as coal and petroleum coke, both of which are rich in carbon. To dispose of carbon dioxide, industries around the globe have been injecting it into the ground.

In the Kern project, the carbon dioxide will be converted to a liquid under high pressure and injected thousands of feet below the Valley floor.

Underground in the Elk Hills oil fields, west of Bakersfield, the carbon dioxide would become permanently entombed in partially depleted geological formations, Hydrogen Energy officials said.

The injection also may help loosen some of the embedded oil to help with petroleum pumping operations in the area.

That leaves the issue of the ozone-making pollution. What’s the source?

The hydrogen-powered turbine that creates the electricity must take in some outside air to function. The air in combination with the heat in the turbine creates oxides of nitrogen, or NOx — one of the Valley’s biggest air-quality villains.

NOx is a building block of ozone, the corrosive summertime pollutant that triggers asthma and other lung problems. The Valley has never achieved the state or federal ozone standard, and the Bakersfield area often has some of the region’s worst ozone.

The NOx emissions from the Hydrogen Energy project would be double the amount allowed for a natural gas-fired plant. But the control technology for the pollutant should evolve enough to bring the plant into compliance, says the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

“We fully expect them to be operating” within the accepted limit at some point in the first two years, said Dave Warner, director of district permit services.

Hydrogen Energy has agreed to offset the excess pollution by paying $681,262 to help farmers in the area replace old tractors and polluting water pump motors. The money also could be used for such projects as replacing old school buses in nearby towns, such as Tupman or Buttonwillow.

The payments would continue in future years if the pollution emissions are not reduced enough, air officials said.

Activist Franz says the company should pay that amount every year they operate until the Valley’s air meets federal standards.

He said, “They are getting off cheap.”

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