NeuStream: Q-and-A on Drake coal scrubber

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For more than a year, local leaders have questioned Colorado Springs Utilities’ decision to install NeuStream, a locally invented, designed and produced coal scrubber that inventors say could revolutionize the clean-coal industry — and help aging power plants comply with regional and federal air-quality standards.

Detractors have been both skeptical and vocal. It doesn’t work; it isn’t proven. Even if it does work, it isn’t the cheapest alternative. And no coal plant can meet upcoming tighter environmental restrictions. There’s also a move to shutter the Martin Drake plant, complicating the NeuStream contract and installation.

Some of the questions:

Does NeuStream work?

It has worked in the lab and in four years of testing at Utilities and at other testing labs and utilities. CSU has done its own studies at smaller capacity. In a white paper by Stanley Consulting, an engineering firm, CSU reports that from May 2010 to July 2010 the test verified that it removes an average of 91 percent of sulfur dioxide, known as SOX, at an average of 91 percent, sometimes reaching as high as 99 percent.

Airtech Environmental was hired to “ensure accurate reporting of test results measured with the continuous emissions monitoring system installed on the pilot unit.”

According to pilot projects, NeuStream removes about 70 percent of mercury, even in coal with high sulfur content. In addition, the projects show it can remove up to 95 percent of non-sulfuric acid particulate matter. Both are needed to reduce the air pollution from the coal-fired power plants, although Drake currently meets all state and federal standards for mercury and particulate emissions.

Has it been vetted by an independent third party?

Yes. Four utility companies asked the Electric Power Research Institute to conduct outside testing on NeuStream. EPRI was created in 1972 at the request of Congress to conduct “research, development and demonstration relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity for the benefit of the public,” according to the institute’s website.

The full EPRI report on NeuStream is available for $15,000 a copy — and is protected by copyright from being released publicly. The nonprofit organization is funded by its members, who want information about potential technological advances ahead of the rest of the industry.

EPRI confirmed CSU’s initial findings and agreed that the product works as advertised.

Will it scale to full size?

CSU officials say they are certain that it will. While the EPRI report is unavailable publicly, officials have said “there did not appear to be any barriers to full scale commercial implementation.”

Is there a cheaper alternative?

There have been suggestions that off-the-shelf technology could be cheaper. But NeuStream uses less water than even dry scrubbers and takes up less room. Conventional scrubbers could work at the Nixon facility, CSU officials say, and they’re looking at installing them there. But at Drake, space is at a premium.

According to Stanley Consulting, employing NeuStream could save $122 million in avoided costs for sulfur dioxide removal.

The white paper also says traditional coal scrubbers would cost around $158 million, and only remove 90 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions. NeuStream costs an estimated $111.8 million, and can remove more than 91 percent in most cases. CSU could save about $46.2 million just at Drake.

“NeuStream technology, due to its revolutionary design, has project capital costs approximately 71 percent of traditional technology,” the report said. “Projected annual operating expense for the NeuStream technology is lower by 35 percent … while performing above traditional technology levels.”

Is it a single-source contract?

Yes. It’s not a typical bid situation. Instead, Utilities embarked on a public-private partnership to jointly test, develop and validate the technology. In exchange for allowing CSU to serve as a test site, the company will give CSU 2 percent of gross revenue for the first two years it’s on the market and 1 percent from years three through five.

The original contract was to remove sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide. Is Neumann in violation of its contract because it only removes sulfur dioxide?

No. While NSG continues to test NeuStream for carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide capture, Utilities made the decision early on to focus solely on sulfur dioxide removal because the Environmental Protection Agency had come out with regulations to reduce emissions. While the EPA has signaled it will issue carbon dioxide regulations, none are currently being enforced.

The federal government has, however, given Neumann $11 million to explore carbon capture. The company has subcontracted with the Energy and Environmental Research Center to conduct tests.

Lab tests have yielded “positive results,” said Tom Erickson, EERC’s associate director of business opportunity and intellectual property. In early testing at CSU, NeuStream removed 20 percent of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.