Toll on Coal Continues

Federal Prosecutors involved in coal accidents

Ken Silverstein | Feb 27, 2012


The toll on coal is continuing. This time it is coming from federal prosecutors who are zeroing in on the executives of the former Massey Energy, which owned the West Virginia mine that exploded and killed 29 people two years ago.

A critical question arising from that accident is the long-term effect it is having on coal production and specifically whether it will force regulators to enact stricter laws. Tougher oversight, of course, would tend to require not just more safety standards but also stronger pollution controls, all of which would add costs.

Utilities would then have to incorporate those new rules into their long-term planning decisions. The indications are that the older coal-fired units are getting retired and are being replaced with modern natural gas combined cycle units. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that coal will lose some of its current 45 percent market of the electric generation market.

The mining accident along with the federal probe into what happened will not help coal’s cause. The investigation has already yielded criminal charges against three people. The most recent is the mine supervisor who was in charge of the “Upper Big Branch Mine” when it went up in flames after methane gas ignited.

Indications are that the supervisor is cooperating with authorities in an effort to determine if others higher up in the organization had colluded to avoid routine safety measures there. “Individuals involved in the day-to-day decision making at the mine must be held accountable regardless of their title,” says a report by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. “The mine foreman is the highest ranking official that current state law addresses.”

The report goes on to say that better ventilation is needed along with “barriers” that stop or insulate a blast. The mine explosion occurred in April 2010. Massey Energy, which had owned the mine, has since been bought by Alpha Natural Resources. At the time of the accident, Massey had been assessed penalties of nearly $900,000 and it had only paid about $168,000 of that.

Critics of the energy company say the protocol had been to contest all citations so as to prolong the review process. Indeed, the central crime that has been alleged here is that the supervisor had intentionally misled those whose job it had been to ensure that the mine was safely operating.

‘Routine Violations’

Gary May is charged with felony conspiracy and could face up to five years in prison. He allegedly used “code words” to alert those underground when the investigators were on the property. He is also accused of deliberately disconnecting a methane detection system to keep production running, and then re-connecting the unit when inspectors came to look.

If those actions had been caught, 29 miners may be alive today and warnings would have been issued, say the Feds in their legal papers. “Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at Upper Big Branch, in part because of a belief that following those laws would decrease coal production.”

According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, 37 miners died in work-related accidents in 2011. Of those, 21 were coal miners. That compares to 23 deaths in 2010. The agency says that it has increased the number of inspections that it performs, which is on top of the training that mine operators are giving their workers to identify and to eliminate potential hazards.

“Although Alpha was not operator of the mine at the time of the accident, the company supports efforts that will lead to a full understanding of the circumstances that precipitated this tragic event,” says Alpha Natural Resources, which paid $1.5 million to everyone of the 29 families who died in the tragedy.

Tougher safety standards are one issue. New environmental regs are another. A host of new rules are in the works and include those involving mercury, coal ash and greenhouse gas emissions. Utilities, of course, are deciding whether to scrap their older and less efficient coal plants or to fix them up. If they ditch them, the beneficiaries would be not just natural gas but also green energy and even nuclear.

The one-two punch will dizzy the cause of coal. The response should not be more foot dragging but rather, more cooperation with regulators to ensure better health and safety standards.

EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

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coal will come back in a few years

Today per IHS Energy EIA predicts that by 2013 natural gas prices will increase thus improving sales of coal for power plants - hindsight is always good - please note I am writing this almost 2 weeks after this article's publication date

Richard W. Goodwin West Palm Beach FL 3 12 12

The Future of Coal is Cooking



The fortunes of coal as a fuel for large-scale electrical generation are indeed waning.  There are simply too many obstacles for coal to overcome.  From transportation squeezes, to the need for combustion-cleanup to remove many trace impurities, coal suffers the death of a hundred small cuts and a couple of large slashes when assessed as a fuel for large plants.

But coal does have a future in what has to date been exclusively a gas-fired electric technology; specifically, combined-cycle plants with a Brayton top-end and a Rankine bottom-end.

The notion of feeding coal to a “gas” turbine does not sound reasonable; and in truth it is not.  But that is because of a limitation in thinking; not in the Brayton-cycle itself.  The expansion of thinking required is to use high-performance heat exchangers instead of combustors to add thermal energy to the Brayton-cycle.  To do this, the axial compressor and the turbine must be de-linked; where the conventional design is for these two components to be directly connected by a common shaft.

In a coal-fired combined-cycle machine; the Brayton-cycle compressor is instead driven by an efficient electric motor.  So there is a small loss in efficiency by eliminating the common shaft; but it is a manageable parasitic loss.  What this loss opens-up is space between the compressor and the expander to fit-in the high-temperature heat exchangers; which are in turn energized by clean-coal combustion.

So making this improvement to the conventional Brayton-cycle allows any carbonaceous fuel to be used as the thermal power source to drive a combined cycle plant; especially clean coal.  And that’s where the cooking comes in.  Because the fundamental problem with coal as a fuel is that it’s just not quite carbon. And its diggers and owners have never cleaned it up enough on the front end to make it into clean carbon (with the exception of coking). 

But cooking coal into coke is the future of coal because it provides coal with three good markets.  It allows coal-based coke to fire the future of combustion-based electrical power; the combined cycle plant.  It maintains coal’s market share in the still important business of steel-making; and finally, it opens-up an entirely new and enormous market by providing the carbon used in developing cities around the world to cook food; a market currently supplied by charcoal, a biomass derivative. 

So cooking coal can save a lot of trees; thus improving the planet’s ability to offset global warming.  There is some irony here.  And cooking coal can provide the pure carbon needed to drive combined cycle plants along the path described.  But if the owners of coal do not step-up and get cooking; then they have no future in the kitchen at all.  VTY RJ


Coal is for cooking?


 I fail to see how the proposed modifications to a combustion turbine should be superior to feeding coal-derived syngas directly to the combustors. Be as it may, my response here is to expand a little on the general concept of combined cycle technology.


The conventional arrangement of a combustion turbine(s) Brayton cycle followed by a Rankine steam cycle results in a marked improvement of plant efficiency. However, this can be expanded even further by adding a third cycle located downstream from the steam condenser. This enabling technology also relies on the Brayton cycle, but it embodies an entirely new energy conversion method capable of extracting useful energy from the warm stream of cooling water where it exits the steam condenser. And plant efficiency becomes even greater!


Are there problems? Yes, big ones, but they are not technical in nature. I refer readers to my reply to a comment in the EnergyBiz Insider thread “Heated Debate in the Heartland” (2-22-2012). Here I address a few of the issues that stand in our way, preventing us from moving forwards.


Alan E. Belcher.



Coke and Syngas why not both?


If I t In response, I can say to you that coal-derived syngas is certainly a combustible fuel applicable to conventional Brayton cycles with less modification to the components of the cycle than I proposed.  And the promise you outline of another synergy between the top and bottom cycles sounds intriguing.  Do you have a thermodynamic analysis of your proposed synergy?  It would be very helpful to determine how much of an efficiency boost is made possible.  

In regards to my overall comment about cooking with coal; I was taking a broad view of the market for coal; and attempting to bring into discussion not only a role for coal in combustion turbines; but also to look at the feasibility of creating a new market to meet the cooking needs of billions of people as well.  

Cooking with coal (by cleaning it up into pure carbon first) stands the conventional wisdom of coal as an evil greenhouse gas on its head; and positions it to be a serious player for planetary improvement.  It is crucial for coal to change its dirty image.  And in actuality, substituting coal for forest-destruction really can be a very good thing from an environmental standpoint.  And it can provide our sagging coal industry with a huge new global market.  Finally; because coking is a very mature technology, tweaking it to ensure enough purity for charcoal substitution should be a straight-forward challenge, and thus produce a big boost to another depressed heartland industry.  (American coke production has declined a great deal since the precipitous decline in primary steel production.)

So I think that there is no incompatibility between what you propose and what I propose.  And the primary differentiator will be the location of the combustion turbine in relation to the supply of solid coal, or solid coke, or the syngas derived from coal.  The only concern I would have in using coal syngas is the loss in available energy from the transformation of raw coal into coal-derived syngas.  I believe the transformation losses to coke would be lower.  VTY Roy Johannesen PE

Coke and Syngas why not both?


You make a good point, Mr. Johannesen, and something I missed entirely in your original post. Your proposal would certainly help to slow down deforestation in many parts of the world, even though it would pose a monumental challenge in its implementation. And, looking back at the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, let us not forget that coal-gas has also proven to be a fairly convenient fuel for cooking purposes. So, yes, let’s by all means start some discussion addressing the possibilities.


In any event, I wish you the best of luck, Mr. Johannesen.


As for my proposed third stage combined cycle, or synergy as you call it, I would like to make the following point absolutely clear. My only contribution here is a “method and apparatus for converting pressure into rotative motion”, to quote the original patent title. This is something very basic that ranks on the same level as the piston-connecting rod-crank arrangement, or a sliding vane in an enclosed cylindrical chamber, or even a bladed wheel that captures kinetic energy present in a stream of flowing fluid. In our particular case pressure can be produced by a head of water (hydropower) or it can be derived from a gas (air) expanded by the addition of heat (Brayton cycle).


In response to your question regarding thermodynamic analysis, for a simple cycle machine (no heat recuperation) the thermal efficiency is about 27% . This is due primarily to the extremely high mechanical efficiency of the machine proper. For practical purposes we like to use a working efficiency of 96%, although an efficiency approaching unity is entirely feasible. However, one must then ask, is an efficiency approaching unity really worth the cost to obtain it? As for its application in converting heat extracted from the cooling water exiting the condenser of a Rankine cycle system, we estimate that fully 1/3 of the facility’s nameplate capacity can be obtained as additional zero-emissions electric  power.


Perhaps more important than considerations of performance is the fact that it is available, here and now. Fabrication closely follows current engineering practice relevant to the construction of condensers, heat exchangers, and so many other similar pieces of equipment found in power stations, chemical plant, and oil refineries. In other words, there is no further R&D required to get some full-scale demos up and running.


Alan E. Belcher.