Air Force Academy graduate David Neumann, who holds a doctorate in physics, has developed a process he says he believes will scrub 90 percent of pollutants spewed by the city's coal-fired electric plants for a fraction of the cost of other processes under development. Neumann won't discuss details of the method because patents are pending and competition in the potentially explosive market is fierce.
If successful, the new chemical treatment would mean thousands of coal-burning plants worldwide could sharply curtail carbon emissions - one of the biggest contributors to global warming. That, in turn, would make the future of energy less complicated and uncertain in the arena of renewables.
Renewables can't provide the lion's share of the world's power because they provide intermittent electricity that is impossible to store. The Department of Energy's 2008 energy outlook estimates the use of renewables will increase by only 2.5 percent in the next 23 years.
By 2030, the use of coal will constitute 55 percent of the nation's fuel, up from 49 percent last year. The chief reason: There's an estimated 300-year supply of coal in known reserves in the United States alone, the Energy Department said. But with that growth will come a surge of roughly 500 million metric tons of emissions, the Energy Department predicts.
That's why Neumann said it's essential to develop a way to make coal plants burn cleaner. It's also why Springs Utilities wants to give his invention a try.
"I would like to contribute to solving the global warming problem," Neumann said. "It's not realistic to eliminate fossil fuels in the next 50 years. We have this huge investment in infrastructure. Unless you want to shut down the world economy, we will be burning fossil fuels." Drew Rankin, Springs Utilities general manager for energy supply, said a method of removing carbon emissions would "liberate" coal as an acceptable long-term fuel source.
"We're not doing this for fun," Rankin said of testing Neumann's device. "I believe there's a high potential for impact to our customers." Standards for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions will be toughened in coming years.
Control technology is in place for nitrogen oxide and particulates, but not for sulfur. Removing sulfur dioxide will require massive investment in scrubbers. Installing equipment at one unit alone at the Walter Drake Power Plant will cost an estimated $65 million, plus $5 million a year in operational costs. Neumann's device is estimated to cost less than $20 million.
No operational costs were provided. A potentially more expensive problem is carbon. While not yet regulated, many in the industry say carbon emissions soon will be subject to limits, carbon taxes and other measures designed to force coalplant owners to find ways to lower their contribution to global warming.
Those taxes could total roughly $150 million a year for Springs Utilities, or about 16 percent of the city-owned agency's current annual budget. So far, there is no proven technology for removing carbon, but Neumann said he believes his invention will handle carbon as well as the other pollutants.
He also said his unit would be 20 times smaller than other versions being tested, which can cover acres.
"Carbon dioxide is very real for gas-fired plants as well," Rankin said. "So it would help solve a lot of challenges if it should work." After achieving success in lab tests, Neumann approached Springs Utilities about testing the process on one of the city's power stations.
Neumann is no novice. After retiring from Space Command in 1994, he started Neumann Systems Group Inc. and has done research and development on high-powered lasers for defense contractors. He and his associate, Tom Henshaw, who holds a doctorate in physical chemistry and did research at the Air Force Academy, decided to work on a way to adapt their laser business to pollution control.
Rankin said Utilities' investment so far has been minimal - adding pipes to divert the exhaust stream between the baghouse where ash is collected and the induced draft fan that pushes the emissions out of the stack. The testing, which begins today, will attempt to remove emissions on the equivalent of one-tenth of 1 megawatt at a 46-megawatt unit at Drake.
In other words, the testing will start on a small scale. Neumann said he's working on a process to neutralize the byproduct so residual material can be fed into the city's wastewater system and be treated at the Las Vegas Wastewater Treatment Plant, just like any other waste.
All byproducts of the tests, however, will be contained and analyzed, Rankin said.
In April, the city hopes to step up the test to 2 megawatts.
Testing is crucial. Not only will it either prove or disprove the efficacy of the process, it also will show how power-intensive the process is. Some scrubbing processes reduce a power plant's output by 10 percent. Rankin hopes the test will lead to a way to reduce the cost of retrofitting coal plants, considering 70 percent of the city's energy comes from coal.
"My level of optimism is high," he said. "It will be proven or disproven by the testing. What I'm positive about is the methodology. The scientific approach gives me strong confidence."
For Neumann, the tests could pave the way to a gold mine. Analysis by his other company, Envirolution Systems, suggests a market potential of $700 billion worldwide for existing coal plants alone. "It could be the first homegrown billion-dollar business in Colorado Springs," he said.