Southern Company and its partner KBR have been marketing the technology being tested at the $4.7 billion Kemper Clean Coal Plant in Mississippi to the rest of the world. China seems particularly interested, because it already bought the technology from them twice.
Now, what makes this story more interesting is the background leading up to the Kemper Power Plant and sale of the technologies to the Chinese.
Around 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored the creation of Power Systems Development Facility (PSDF) in Wilsonville, Alabama, to develop coal-based power generating systems and gasifier technology, which produces a high quality synthesized gas as an output. The research had already been underway for a number of years previously. The Wilsonville PSDF facility combined other pilot scale facilities, including one in Morgantown, West Virginia. These fell under the National Energy Technology Laboratory, whose site documents that the goal of Kemper is as much about syngas as it is “clean coal” power.
Industry partners in this project were M.W. Kellogg (now called KBR, Inc.) and Southern Co., among a few others. Also a partner in this project was the Southern Research Institute. According to a DOE fact sheet for the Wilsonville, Alabama, research, the majority of financing came from federal grants.
The initial investment and, also, the continued financing of this project over twenty years was justified as critical to U.S. energy needs and security. Southern Co. states this about the project on its site (from which it has since been taken down):
“The Power Systems Development Facility (PSDF) was established in 1996 to support the Department of Energy’s (DOE) effort to develop cost-competitive and environmentally acceptable coal-based power generation technologies. Located near Wilsonville, Ala., the PSDF was designed at a size that can be reliably scaled up to commercial applications. Development of advanced power systems at the PSDF is focused specifically on identifying ways to reduce capital cost and increase efficiency while meeting strict environmental standards.
Supplying the demand for energy reliably and affordably is essential. Fuel diversity has been a key component in providing a steady supply of affordable energy in our country and maintaining national security. Equally as important is supplying that demand while meeting the highest environmental standards. Innovative steps must be taken to meet our environmental responsibilities for today as well as for the long-term future. The PSDF is developing technologies that will allow the continued use of coal, this country’s most abundant and least expensive fuel source, to produce energy without adversely impacting the environment.”
The Wilsonville, Alabama, project created a more advanced and efficient Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) design called TRIG™ technology. The underlying product is the proprietary technology of KBR and Southern Co. (TRIG stands for Transport Integrated Gasifier.)
The production output of the TRIG™ technology is a more pure form of syngas –synthesized gas, derived from low grade coal, like what is abundant in Mississippi, and other places around the world. KBR says on its website:
“The KBR’s Transport Gasifier (also known as TRIG™) was particularly developed with these low rank coals in mind. Our proprietary TRIG™ technology offers a simple and reliable method for processing low grade coal such as lignite coal, sub-bituminous coal and high ash coal in a cost-effective and efficient way. The TRIG™ gasifier un-locks the true potential of low rank coal by efficiently converting it to high quality synthesis gas for a wide variety of industrial and energy applications.”
The Chinese developed a keen interest in this U.S. funded gasifier technology, and in the last decade, bought it from KBR for facilities in Inner Mongolia, China (which KBR claimed as the first oxygen-blown TRIG™ gasifier) and in Guangdong. Curiously, it seems China’s KBR projects will actually start up sooner than Mississippi’s Kemper.
So—this raises some questions:
- Why did China buy this technology? To reduce its carbon emissions and pollution by using clean coal plants? Or to produce a more pure form of syngas from its own low-grade coal reserves, and have it on hand for critical industrial and wartime applications?
- Why did KBR and Southern Co. sell a technology—funded by both the federal government and Mississippi ratepayers—to China, when they claim that the technology is critical for providing “affordable energy in our country and maintaining national security”?