North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

A Green Destiny for Coal: Why Kemper Should Inform but not Determine the Future of Clean Coal Technology

By: Leah Kaiser








Coal is a relatively plentiful fuel source and currently accounts for almost half of global energy production.  Yet, coal combustion and associated emissions are also seen as a primary driver of global climate change. The Kemper County Clean Coal Plant attempted to reconcile the use of local coal with environmental concerns by endeavoring to become the first large scale plant with Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) and carbon capture and storage (CCS).  Although Kemper ultimately failed to achieve its goals, its legacy should be one that stresses the importance of technological innovation in the face of global energy production. We should not let Kemper’s failure reflect negatively on the further development of clean coal technologies.

Coal and Climate Change

Reliable electricity is an essential component of modern life and is often a determinative factor in separating industrialized from developing countries. Almost half of the world’s electricity is currently produced by coal-fired power plants.[1]  Coal has consistently been a reliable source of fuel for energy production and drives electricity generation in many countries. It is also a relatively plentiful fuel.[2]  At roughly 1.1 trillion tons of proven coal reserves worldwide, there is enough coal to last approximately 150 years at our current rates of production.[3]  This compares to the expected 50 to 52 years for proven oil and gas reserves.[4]  While coal is a readily accessible and reliable fuel source for energy generation, it is also associated with significant environmental harms. The main emissions associated with burning coal include sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulates, carbon dioxide (CO2) and heavy metals including mercury.[5]  Industry developments and new technologies have allowed coal burning power plants to reduce released levels of particulate matter, SO2, NOx and heavy metals,[6]  but emissions of CO2 continue to be problematic. The high CO2 emissions associated with coal-fired power plants are especially concerning in light of the effect of CO2 on global climate chance. CO2 emissions are a key driver of climate change, and cumulative CO2 emissions largely determine global mean surface warming of the earth.[7]  An overabundance of CO2 is the primary driver of what many would consider the most significant problem facing the world today.


Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) with carbon capture and storage (CCS) may present the most viable solution to environmentally friendly coal fired electricity. IGCC more efficiently and cleanly produces electricity by using syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.[8]  The fuel, in this case, coal, is first converted to syngas[9]  which is then converted to electricity using a gas or steam turbine.[10]  This process means that the syngas from the gasification process is cleaned before it is used to turn the turbines.[11]  This is in contrast to typical pulverized coal and natural gas plants that clean the exhaust after combustion instead of before.[12]  This allows for a cleaner process. Additionally the higher concentration of CO2 in the syngas makes CCS easier.[13]  CCS allows the separation of CO2 from other gasses produced in the electricity generation process and can capture up to 90% of CO2 emissions.[14]  The CO2 is then transported by a variety of methods including rail, pipelines, and ships, among others, and is then stored in specially selected geological rock formations.[15]  CCS alone “can achieve 14 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050” and “is viewed as the only practical way to achieve deep de-carbonization in the industrial sector.”[16]  Kemper County’s power plant was supposed to be one of the first major functioning examples of IGCC and CCS, and, in many ways, Kemper “embodied the hope that coal could become a major part of a future clean energy mix.”[17]


Had it been successful, Kemper would have been the largest clean coal project in the United States.[18]  Kemper, a 582 MW plant, was designed as a gasification plant that would utilize both IGCC and CCS.[19]  Kemper would have been the first large-scale demonstration of IGCC and CCS and would have sent a powerful message about the viability of clean coal. Instead, the “Kemper experience may have created a legacy with damaging implications for the future of CCS and so-called ‘clean coal’ technology.”[20]  After nearly seven years of planning and construction work and investments totaling over $7 billion Kemper will never meet the goal it was designed to meet.[21]  On 28 June 2017, Southern Company and its Mississippi Power business unit announced they would cease efforts geared towards implementing a functioning IGCC and CCS system.[22]  Instead, Kemper will run as a typical natural gas power plant.[23]

There is a fair amount of debate over what factors caused Kemper to fail. Some argue that complex technology, low natural gas prices and low-cost renewable energy led to the failure.[24]  Others contend that it was the rapid upscaling of IGCC technology,[25]  while still others argue it was the “compressed schedule” on which Kemper was developed that led to its failure.[26] In all likelihood it was a combination of all of these factors, among others, which led to the downfall, but it is not the specific factors that matter.  It is the legacy of Kemper, and its implications for IGCC and CCS technology, that matter.

Kemper is now a failed model of IGCC and CCS technology, but it is important to recognize that this failure is not a failure of this technology generally.  Kemper was “sailing uncharted waters” and unfortunately realized many of the risks that are associated with first-of-a-kind plants.[27]  Two coal burning plants in North America are currently using CCS[28]  and, while they haven’t combined CCS with IGCC, they are a step in the right direction. Furthermore, there are currently 17 large-scale CCS projects operating around the world,[29]  indicating that CCS is a viable option. Although Kemper is a setback “[i]t is vital that we continue to grow this [CCS] portfolio”[30] and that the takeaway from Kemper is “not that CCS is a flop.”[31]

Global Energy Futures

Coal fired electricity generation is increasingly at odds with environmental goals that prioritize reducing emissions in order to meet global climate change emissions reduction targets. This is interwoven with a geopolitical interest in energy supply.[32]  The risk of a disruption to the energy supply and the risk of anthropogenic climate change are substantial uncertainties facing energy systems.[33]  An implementation of “clean coal” technology could substantially reduce the uncertainty associated with both of these problems. Coal is already used in a variety of industrial processes, and most countries with accessible coal deposits have the necessary infrastructure to access coal leading to a decreased chance of a disruption in the energy supply. Although coal is traditionally thought to be a “dirty” fuel, CCS, especially in tandem with IGCC, could lead to significant emissions reductions.  Coal is an important fuel source to target for emissions reductions due to its global prevalence. Although Kemper was not the leading example of a large-scale functional IGCC and CCS plant that many had hoped it would be, it should be seen as a bold step towards securing a better energy future.


[1] World Coal Association (2017), [].

[2] See id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] U.S. Energy Information Administration (Feb. 1, 2017) [].

[6] Id.

[7] IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp, [].

[8] Ola Maurstad, An Overview of Coal Based Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) Technology (Sept. 2007) [].

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] National Energy Technology Laboratory, Commercial Power Production Based on Gasification [].

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Carbon Capture and Storage Association, What is CCS? (2017) [].

[15] Id.

[16] Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Carbon Capture [].

[17] James Conca, The Largest Clean Coal Power Plant in America Turns to Natural Gas, Forbes (July 11, 2017) [].

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Laszlo Varro, Commentary: We can’t let Kemper slow the progress of carbon capture and storage, International Energy Agency (July 7, 2017) [].

[21] See Conca, supra note 17.

[22] David Wagman, The Three Factors That Doomed Kemper County IGCC, IEEE Spectrum (June 30, 2017) [].

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Varro, supra note 20.

[26] David Hawkins & George Peridas, Kemper County IGCC: Death Knell for Carbon Capture? NRDC (July 28 2017) [].

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Varro, supra note 20.

[30] Id.

[31] Hawkins supra note 26.

[32]Hal Turton & Leonardo Barreto, Long-term security of energy supply and climate change, Energy Policy.

[33] Id.

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