New Energy for Cook Inlet

Cook Inlet Regional, Incorporated, today added another piece to help fill the long-term energy needs of the Railbelt. It uses Underground Coal Gasification – or U-C-G, a technology that turns coal into gas that’s ready to pump into the existing energy infrastructure – without mining.

The  project has been in the works about a year. And Margie Brown, CIRI’s President and C-E-O, told legislators that it came about as a response to concerns over a shortage of Cook Inlet natural gas in the not-too-distant future.

It can harness the energy that is contained in a coal seam and produce electric power and other value-added products without the negative effects of mining. And that is a tremendous technology that really deserves to be explored and hopefully brought on line.

She said the project is not the silver bullet to solve all the needs of the railbelt – much less the entire state. But she said the project will move the region toward a diverse supply of energy sources – and will help loosen the dependence on one fuel source in which South Central residents now find themselves. It is designed to fit in with CIRI’s wind generating facility on Fire Island and will have about the same output as Ormat’s plan for a geothermal facility at Mount Spurr.

Ethan Shutt, CIRI’s senior vice president for land and energy development, said the process consists of dry wells that inject air into a coal seam – below the water supply — where about twenty percent of it is burned. The combustion is self-contained and gives off no waste. The movement of the heated air across the seam moves synthesis gas – or Syngas — out through another well.

Syngas is a valuable product which can be used in its simplest form without refinement to generate electricity by burning it through a control-modified natural gas turbine. Or it can be upgraded through known and commercially available processes to synthetic natural gas or to seam liquid fuels.

Shutt says CIRI would build its facility on its own land near Beluga where it would also build a one hundred megawatt power plant. The project would also include a Carbon Capture Sequestration element that will separate the carbon dioxide from the syngas and inject it into Cook Inlet oil fields – helping increase oil production as well as further reducing emissions from the power plant.

You probably know that most of our power generation on the railbelt is old and inefficient. It is not up to modern standards. So a plant like our proposed power plant will compare very favorably to the existing infrastructure.

Here are some other facts about the project and process that Shutt gave lawmakers.

  • U-C-G has been used safely for many years – in China, India and Australia – with extensive development coming from the former Soviet Union. However, Shutt says that natural gas was found to be much less expensive to develop than a U-C-G facility.
  • U-C-G uses pieces of several disciplines to put it all together – physics, geology, hydrogeology, and chemistry. So CIRI has hired a technology provider – and the Livermore National Laboratory as an independent consultant.
  • The plan has a long life expectancy. It will consume less than three acres of coal per year. He says that translates to tens of thousands of years of energy available to it.

CIRI is not asking for anything from the legislature – no government money is needed for the project.Legislators were extremely positive with the announcement. Senator Lesil McGuire said it is exciting – especially for those who have been worried about the region’s dark energy future.

There might be a light at the end of the tunnel. And it sounds like thousands of years of light at the end of the tunnel.

CIRI plans to begin test drilling in December – with a goal for operating the facility in January of 2014.

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