IGCC technology also gives engineers unprecedented control over what happens to the different components of coal after they go into the power plant. In normal coal-fired plants, nearly all the pollutants go up the smokestack, where some of them are captured from the exhaust by scrubbers. Here they never even hit the flame. Conventional plants burn pulverized coal in the air, which contains about 78 percent nitrogen. Since the burning takes place at low pressure, the carbon dioxide is diffuse; isolating it is difficult and expensive. Burning gasified coal in pure oxygen at high pressure concentrates the carbon dioxide, making it far easier to capture.
Although Polk does not capture carbon dioxide (it still goes up the exhaust stack, at a rate of 5,000 tons a day), it could easily be retrofitted to do so; new IGCC plants could have the capacity built in. Shorter reports that TECO is planning to replace this plant with a much larger, 600-megawatt IGCC facility. "The rumor I've heard is that it will be online by 2013. I'm sure the new plant will be CO2-capture ready. It wouldn't make sense not to. Anyone that's going to build one today has got to be thinking that carbon-emissions permits are going to be required in the future. What do you do when that day comes and you're not ready for it?"
Unfortunately, Tampa Electric's plans aren't typical of the industry. Of 75 coal-fired plants planned for construction over the next decade, only nine are slated to be IGCC, largely because an IGCC plant costs about $1 billion, 15 to 20 percent more than a conventional one. "The biggest obstacle is simple economics," says Holdren. "There is no incentive for capturing carbon in the United States, India, or China. The most important thing that could happen to drive IGCC forward would be putting a price on CO2 emissions in the form of a mandatory economy-wide 'cap and trade' approach, which is what a Senate resolution passed last summer recommended."
Although the Senate resolution went nowhere, David Hawkins, the director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., is convinced that the political landscape will change as the effects of global warming become impossible to ignore. Signs of that change are already evident in several states—most notably California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has introduced legislation that will require a 25-percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. When policies shift, the economics will follow. "We're talking to Wall Street investors and telling them that if someone wants to borrow a billion dollars to build a coal plant and you don't ask them what their strategy is to control carbon dioxide, you're making a very bad investment," Hawkins says.
The Polk plant, on the other hand, has been a very good investment. Tampa Electric actually makes money from the pollutants that the IGCC process removes from the coal. The utility sells sulfur captured from the syngas to the fertilizer industry. Slag left from the coal is sold to the cement industry. All the slurry water is recycled to the gasifier; there is no waste water and very little solid waste. "Almost nothing goes to a landfill," Shorter says.
That squeaky-clean image starts to fall apart, however, as I'm leaving Polk and encounter a dump truck loaded with 54 tons of that black rock. Another truck rolls along every 15 minutes or so, 24/7, feeding the plant's 2,400-tons-per-day habit. Some of that coal, no doubt, once lay beneath a mountain in West Virginia. And that chapter of the coal story is anything but tidy.
On a rainy early summer afternoon in the ancient mountains of West Virginia, Larry Gibson is showing me the other face of coal. We're on top of Kayford Mountain, in the heart of Appalachia, walking through 50 acres of hardwood forest where Gibson's family has lived for more than 200 years. Many generations of coal miners are buried in a family cemetery on this mountain. As we walk, a low steady rumble filters through the dense stands of spruce, maple, and hemlock. It is the sound of a mountain dying, and it's coming from just ahead, where the forest ends in a sheer 500-foot drop.
Below us and extending to the misty horizon lies a desolate pit of gray-black rock and rubble where, 14 months ago, a heavily forested mountain once stood. The grating rumble we hear is made by the biggest bulldozer I've ever seen. Its blade is 12 feet high and 18 feet wide. Several hundred vertical feet of mountain have been blasted to smithereens to expose a rich vein of coal; the bulldozers are moving in to harvest the bounty. This is mountaintop-removal mining, where a handful of men working some of the largest vehicles ever built can level an entire mountain in a matter of months.
"I can count 9 men on this site now, 15 at most," says Gibson, a white-haired 60-year-old mountain gnome of a man. "They've been working here for 14 months. Get a lot done in 14 months—took millions of years to form the mountains and a blink of an eye to drop them. This is the most insane thing I've ever seen in my life."
Like thousands of others throughout the region who have seen their communities ravaged by the effects of mining, Gibson laughs at the notion of coal being clean or green. More than 7 percent of Appalachian forest—the most diverse temperate forest in the world—has been obliterated by mountaintop-removal mining. "Some people like to talk about the cheap cost of coal," he says. "How the hell can you call that cheap?"
Lax enforcement of environmental regulations has let mining companies destroy communities and taint groundwater throughout Appalachia. I visit one family whose home was filled with sulfur fumes from their tap water. Arsenic, benzene, and other mining wastes contaminate the drinking water in many areas, which may be why Appalachia's cancer rates are abnormally high. And the death rate in coal mining is 60 percent higher than it is in oil and gas extraction. When I mention clean-coal technology to Judy Bonds, a local activist and coal miner's daughter in Whitesville, West Virginia, she scoffs: "Even if you could get marshmallows to come out of a power plant's smokestacks, you can't wash the blood off coal."