Most of Kentucky's coal is used to generate electricity. After coal is mined, it is transported to power plants by trains, barges, and trucks. A conveyor belt carries the coal to a pulverizer, where it is ground to the fineness of talcum powder. The powdered coal is then blown into a combustion chamber of a boiler, where it is burned at around 2,550°F (1,400°C). Surrounding the walls of the boiler room are pipes filled with water. Because of the intense heat, the water vaporizes into superheated (2,000°F) high-pressure (1,000 psi) steam. The steam passes through a turbine (which is similar to a large propeller) connected to a generator. The incoming steam causes the turbine to rotate, creating a magnetic field inside wire coils in the generator. This pushes an electric current through the coils out of the power plant through transmission lines. After the steam passes through the turbine chamber, it is cooled down in cooling towers and it again becomes part of the water/steam cycle.

How coal is used to generate electricity in a conventional coal-fired power plant with a pulverized coal boiler.


Emissions Control

In the United States, gases produced by the combustion of coal in the boiler (called flue gas) must be treated to remove air pollutants before they can be released to the atmosphere through the power-plant stack. Federal regulations limit the amount of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and particulate matter that can be released into the air from a power plant. Modern, coal-generated power plants use multiple pollution-control devices to control the flue gas released from the boiler. These devices are not simple filters or devices placed within the exhaust pipes to the stack. Most are large, expensive buildings with complex internal workings. The exhaust stream is redirected through these structures so that pollutants can be reduced before they are emitted to the air.

Typical pollution-control systems used to clean emissions from a coal-fired power plant. Different plants use different technologies and different arrangements of technologies.

Selective catalytic reduction and selective noncatalytic reduction units are commonly used to reduce NOx, which contributes to smog and haze. Selective catalytic reduction units use gaseous anhydrous ammonia (NH3) and catalysts to chemically reduce NOx emissions to harmless gaseous nitrogen (N2) and water (H2O). Noncatalytic reduction units reduce NOx formation by injecting urea (CO(NH2)2) into the gas stream without a catalyst. Advanced boilers and fuel changes are also used to reduce NOx emissions.

Electrostatic precipitators and filter baghouses are used to trap and reduce particulates in the flue-gas stream. Particles in the gas stream may be only microns in size. Some are 10 to 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Filter baghouses use collections of filters to trap particles; the principle is similar to the air filters in a car. Electrostatic precipitators use electrically charged plates to attract particles from the gas stream, capturing more than 99 percent of the solid particles in the gas stream.

How an ESP works in a coal-fired power plant. Modified from Beechler and Jahnke (1981).

Flue-gas desulfurization units (commonly called scrubbers) are used to trap and convert sulfurous gases from the flue-gas stream. There are several different types of scrubbers. Some use dry limestone powder and others use wet limestone slurry, which is sprayed directly in the path of the flue gas. The limestone reacts with the sulfur in the gases in the stacks. The combination of carbonate (limestone) and sulfur forms solid calcium sulfite (CaSO3) and calcium sulfate (CaSO4)—essentially the mineral gypsum (CaSO4•2H20). Gypsum is a solid that mixes with the liquid sprays to form a slurry (in wet scrubbers) or falls out of the gas to the bottom of the stacks (in dry scrubbers). The fly ash is then collected and either disposed of or used as a byproduct (discussed in the next section).

How a wet FGD scrubber works in a coal-fired power plant. Modified from Beechler and Jahnke (1981).

Another gaseous emission, which has garnered concern because of its contribution to global climate change, is carbon dioxide (CO2). Coal-fired power plants are large point sources for CO2 emissions. Currently, the United States does not regulate CO2 emissions, but regulations have been suggested, and different technologies are being tested to determine their potential viability. One possibility is carbon storage or sequestration.

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References for Power Plant and Coal-Combustion Byproducts

  • Adriano, D.C., Page, A.L., Elseewi, A.A., Chang, A.C., and Straughan, I., 1980, Utilization and disposal of fly ash and other coal residues in terrestrial ecosystems: A review: Journal of Environmental Quality, v. 9, no. 3, p. 333 –344.
  • Beechler, D.S., and Jahnke, J.A., 1981, APTI Course 413 —Control of particulate emissions —Student manual: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Air Pollution Training Institute, No. EPA-450/2-80-066, various pagination.
  • Energy Information Administration, 2016, Annual coal report: [accessed 2016].
  • Greb, S.F., Eble, C.F., Peters, D.C., and Papp, A.R., 2006, Coal and the environment: American Geological Institute, Environmental Education Series, 64 p.
  • Kalyoncu, R.S., and Olson, D.W., 2001, Coal combustion products: U.S. Geological Survey, Coal Combustion Products, 12 p.
  • National Energy Technology Laboratory , 2016, Coal: [accessed 2016].
  • National Research Council, 1975, Underground disposal of coal mine wastes: A report to the National Science Foundation Study Committee to assess the feasibility of returning underground coal mine wastes to the mined-out areas: Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 172  p.
  • U.S. Department of Transportation, 2008, User guidelines for waste and byproduct materials in pavement construction: Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology, i [accessed 2016].
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency , 1998, Bituminous and subbituminous coal combustion [5th ed.]: Technology and Transfer Network Clearinghouse for Inventories and Emission Factors, AP-42, v. 1, chapter 1: External Combustion Sources, 52 p.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency , 1999, Report to Congress —Wastes from the combustion of fossil fuels: Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, EPA 530-S-99-010, Executive Summary, 2 v.



Last Modified on 2017-03-29
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