The technology behind what could be the next generation of coal-plant emissions purifiers uses less water, less electricity and far less space than traditional methods of removing sulfur dioxide from the air.
It also is supposed to be far more effective.
Over the past several years, much has been reported about the potential of what’s called the Neustream system, which is being developed by Springs-based Neumann Systems Group. But outside of a small circle of utility executives, engineers and scientists, little is known about just how the emissions-cleaning technology works.
Last month, the Business Journal took the closest look yet allowed by outsiders of the inner workings of Neustream.
Colorado Springs Utilities, which has invested about $20 million into the technology and has been testing the Neustream on its plant in downtown, believes it is the sort of “disruptive technology” that can change their industry. CSU officials say the new technology will prolong the life of coal-fired power plants, saving the utility tens of millions of dollars, and could even forestall the need to shift to more expensive alternative energies.
The exact way Neustream works is patent-protected and proprietary, so CSU is still extremely tight-lipped about many of the engineering details. But here’s how the utility described it:
For starters, the Neustream is, in the parlance of the industry, a wet scrubber, meaning nothing more complicated than it uses water to do part of the job. The Neustream, however, is supposed to use about half as much water as conventional scrubbing systems.
When coal is burned in any power plant, emissions are funneled through several filtering processes to “scrub” them of pollutants.
The Neustream system cleans 97 percent of the sulfur dioxide — also known as SOX — in emissions. Conventional technology can clear 90 percent of SOX from emissions.
The Neustream is more effective in part because the unit — about one-tenth the size of a conventional scrubber — is placed in the plant after the plant’s “bag house,” the area where particulates are filtered out. Neumann engineers found that doing so works better than placing scrubbers before the particulates are removed — at least when removing mercury from the emissions, something the utility is required to do under federal regulations.
When emissions flow through the Neustream, they also undergo a chemical process using a sorbent, or a material used to absorb gases.
The process removes the SOX and then mixes the sorbent with lime. The result is a gypsum-like product that can be sold to construction firms for sheetrock.
At some point, the system’s designer and company founder, David Neumann, hopes to prove the technology also will clean most of the carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide out of power-plant emissions, but the system hasn’t yet been tested on a large scale for those two pollutants. Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, along with SOX, are considered greenhouse gases and are believed by many scientists to contribute to global climate change.
The Neustream underwent important independent testing from the Electric Power Research Institute last fall.
ERPI gave the system a thumbs-up, saying it worked favorably at the current scale. However, it remains to be seen whether the system will readily scale to commercial size, said Jeff Brehm, a spokesman for the institute.
“We didn’t look at that,” he said. “Our contractor just tested it to see if it worked as it is, and it operates as Neumann predicted.”
That’s good news for CSU as well as Neumann Systems. As part of its partnership with Neumann Systems, CSU will receive a percentage of the proceeds of any sales to other utilities. Both Neumann and CSU are hoping for a big share of the $7 billion emissions control industry in the United States. Better yet, the projected worldwide market to control coal emissions is anticipated to be $40 billion a year during the next 30 years.
CSU also hopes to save money thanks to the Neustream.
Installing the Neustream at CSU’s Drake plant is expected to cost $80 million. A conventional scrubber would cost between $150 million and $160 million. The reason for the difference is the smaller size of the Neustream.
With the technology, CSU will be able to continue using the Drake plant, which supplies 60 percent of the city’s electricity.
Without the Neustream, the life of the Drake plant is limited, utilities officials say. The plant, located just off Nevada Avenue, near downtown Colorado Springs, was built more than 50 years ago, and space is at a premium. The smaller size of the Neustream will help keep CSU keep its capital expenses lower and allow it to continue to operate the plant.
Excitement by some in the industry aside, environmentalists remain unimpressed by the idea of the Neustream.
“Coal is dirty,” said Pam Kiely, executive director of Environment Colorado, a statewide environmental advocacy group. “And it’s about more than just the emissions — it’s dirty when you take it out of the ground.”
“Having something that keeps fossil fuel energy on life support — that is not the way to go,” she said. “The Public Utilities Commission in Denver just did a huge study to see if coal scrubbers were better or cheaper than alternative energy. They found that alternative energy was both better and cheaper. Ignoring that isn’t smart for Colorado consumers.”
Denver’s Excel Energy is moving away from coal, toward natural gas and other alternative energy.
“Colorado is abundant in other sources — solar and wind,” Kiely said. “It doesn’t make sense to push an outdated fossil fuel. It doesn’t make economic or environmental sense. Coal and clean just don’t go together.”
A lot of power plant owners, of course, don’t agree.
Year established: 1998
Founder: David Neumann
Sales: 35 government contracts valued at more than $45 million; pending contracts for $150 million
Growth prospects: The company has made Inc. 500’s fastest-growing companies list for two years’ running. Its website says it plans to hire 15 new people in the coming months. If the Neustream takes off, many more hires are planned.