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Pioneering Gasification Plants

In the 1800s, lamplighters made their rounds in the streets of many of America's largest cities lighting street lights fueled by "town gas," frequently the product of early forms of coal gasification. Gasification of fuel also provided fuel for steel mills, and toward the end of the 19th Century, electric power. These early gasifiers were called "gas producers," and the gas that they generated was called "producer gas."  

During the early 20th Century, improvements in the availability of petroleum and natural gas products, along with the extension of the infrastructure associated with these products, led to their widespread use, which replaced coal-based producer gas in the energy market.

The Federal Government was involved in coal gasification research in the early 20th Century, through the U.S. Bureau of Mines. While the market shifted toward oil and gas and away from gasification of coal, the Bureau of Mines continued its work in coal gasification.

By the 1970s, interest in coal gasification revived, due largely to concerns that the U.S. supply of natural gas was waning.  The massive Great Plains Coal Gasification Plant in Beulah, North Dakota, was built with federal government support to use coal gasification to produce methane, the chief constituent of natural gas. When government price controls on natural gas were lifted, however, large quantities of natural gas became available, and no other coal-to-methane gasification plants have been built to date in the United States.

Coal gasification, however, returned to the market in the 1980s and 90s. Driven primarily by environmental concerns over the traditional burning of coal, gasification emerged as an extremely clean way to generate electric power. By turning coal into a combustible gas that could be cleansed of virtually all of its pollutant-forming impurities and burned in a gas turbine, coal could rival natural gas in terms of environmental performance.

The first use of coal gasification in a modern electric power plant in the United States occurred in the mid-1980s at Southern California Edison's experimental Cool Water demonstration plant near Barstow, California. The 110-megawatt Cool Water plant established the early technical foundation for future Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plants.

Coal gasification-based power concepts got their biggest boost in the 1990s when the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Coal Technology Program provided federal cost-sharing for the first commercial-scale IGCC plants in the United States.

Tampa Electric's Polk Power Station

The Polk Power Station near Mulberry, Florida, is the Nation's first "greenfield" (built as a brand new plant) commercial IGCC power plant.

Capable of generating 313 megawatts of electricity - 250 megawatts of which are supplied to the electric grid - the power plant is one of the world's cleanest. The plant's gas cleaning technology removes more than 98 percent of the sulfur in coal, converting it to a commercial product. Nitrogen oxide emissions are reduced by more than 90 percent.

The project was presented the 1997 Powerplant Award by Power magazine. In 1996 the project received the Association of Builders and Contractors Award for construction quality. Several awards were presented for using an innovative siting process in which a local citizens group evaluated candidate sites and made the final selection: 1993 Ecological Society of America Corporate Award, 1993 Timer Powers Conflict Resolution Award from the State of Florida, and the 1991 Florida Audubon Society Corporate Award.

The Wabash River Repowering ProjectThe Wabash River Repowering Project

The Wabash River Coal Gasification Repowering Project is the first full-size commercial gasification-combined cycle plant built in the United States. Located outside West Terre Haute, Indiana, the plant started full operations in November 1995.

The plant can generate 292 megawatts of electricity - 262 megawatts of which are supplied to the electric grid - making it one of the world's largest single train gasification combined cycle plants operating commercially.

Destec Energy and CINergy Corp./PSI Energy received the 1996 Powerplant Award from Power magazine. Sargent & Lundy, engineer for the combined-cycle facility, won the American Consulting Engineers Council's 1996 Engineering Excellence Award.