March 12, 2008

Alliance Coal to Hire for New Mines Jobs, Gasification, Legislation Among Topics at Illinois Basin Conference

By CHUCK STINNETT, Gleaner staff 831-8343 or [email protected]

Alliance Coal Co. in August will start hiring several hundred people for the two River View coal mines it is developing in Union County, an employment official said here Thursday.

"It will pay $15.50 to $19 per hour and really good benefits," said Ann Oldham, a business liason with the state's West Kentucky Workforce Investment Board in Madisonville.

Alliance will open one mine in the No. 9 coal seam and a second mine in the No. 11 seam near Uniontown.

That, along with the 900 miners that Armstrong Coal hopes to hire for its mine in Ohio County, points to a sudden demand for miners in western Kentucky, Oldham said at the Illinois Basin Energy Conference here.

"I've got a stack of 1,000 applications for jobs," she said. "We've got jobs. We've got applicants, but they're nowhere near trained and ready."

With the help of a $1.5 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, the workforce board has been subsidizing half the wages of new miners while they receive on-the-job training at mines in western Kentucky, Oldham said.

Also, William Higginbotham of the Kentucky Coal Academy said training is being provided at community colleges, including in Madisonville, using devices that simulate operating a continuous miner, a roof bolter, haul trucks, dozers and other equipment.

"The average age of our miners is 51 or 52, and half of our miners in the next five to seven years will retire," Higginbotham said. "We really don't have anybody trained to replace them."

Among other matters discussed here Thursday:

* Coal gasification: "The infrastructure (in this area) to do a coal gasification project is tremendous," said Michael Mujadin, a consultant who has studied the feasibility of gasification for the state of Kentucky.

Western Kentucky coal would make "an excellent feedstock," and there are several potential plant sites along a river, such as one near Uniontown.

He estimated a gasification plant would cost $2.09 billion and consume 4 million tons of coal per year. A plant would convert 12,000 tons of coal per day into 175 million cubic feet of pipeline quality substitute natural gas.

Based on coal costing $30 per ton, he projected that the plant could produce gas costing $7.96 per million Btu, which he said "might be a bargain, long term."

* Washington: The district director of U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield blasted federal officials and legislators who oppose the increased use of coal in America.

"Coal is the one form of energy we have an abundant supply of," Michael Pate said. "But it has gotten such a bad reputation."

America has an estimated 250-year supply of coal, and coal can be converted into liquid and gas fuels, he said. "Yet in the public relations battle in Washington, we're losing," Pate said. "We're losing across the country."

Coal has opposition in the Bush administration, in the leadership of the Congress and elsewhere, he said.

He also criticized the "bureaucratic regulations" that coal operators face from the Clean Water Act.

* Conference center: Henderson County Judge-executive Sandy Watkins said the Henderson area is "looking to put together a partnership of cities, counties and private investors. We want to develop a totally green conference center, one of the first in the nation."

* FutureGen: Thirteen energy and utility companies that comprise the FutureGen Industrial Alliance want to convince the U.S. government to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the proposed near-zero emission FutureGen power plant at Mattoon, Ill., alliance Chairman Paul Thompson said.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which was expected to pay 74 percent of the cost, withdrew its support in January, saying the cost at $1.8 billion was too much.

But Thompson, a senior vice president of E.on/U.S. in Louisville, said the alliance hopes to persuade the administration of the next U.S. president to reconsider.

"The coal industry needs a Manhattan Project, it needs an Apollo program" to develop a coal-fueled power plant with practically no emissions, he said.

* Power efficiency: While there is "no silver bullet," the electric utility industry is trying to persuade consumers and industries to be more energy efficient, Mike Core, president and CEO of Big Rivers Electric Corp., said.

That would reduce or postpone the need for new power plants, he said.

Big Rivers, for instance, distributes compact fluorescent light bulbs that require only one-fourth the power than an incandescent bulb uses.

* Carbon sequestration: Research continues into the feasibility of capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and pumping it 8,000 feet underground into porous rock formations, where proponents hope it could be permanently stored, keeping it from becoming a greenhouse gas.

Existing coal-fired power plants could be retrofitted with equipment to remove carbon dioxide from smokestacks, but finding the best process is tricky. "You don't want your electric bill to go up 40 to 50 percent, as predicted," said Jim Neathery of the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research.

Hannes Leetaru of the Illinois Geological Survey is confident that permanent storage deep underground could work, noting that oil and natural gas "has been trapped in those same formations for 262 million years."

* Algae: Arizona Public Service Co. continues its research in growing algae, which he called "nature's champion" at absorbing carbon dioxide, the company's Raymond Hobbs said.

The algae can then be converted into biofuels or, perhaps more profitably, into pharmaceuticals and other products.

However, he acknowledged that vast acreage would be required. To absorb all the carbon dioxide from a 750-megawatt power plant would require an algae farm encompassing 8,300 acres.

* Biomass: Brent Carman of The Center for Strategic Alliance described a technology it has available that can convert plastic bottles, manure, pecan shells, telephone poles or anything else with carbon and process it into a clean-burning gas.

The equipment can be used at factories, farms or landfills, he said.

* Students: Pat Shields, who was one of 16 architecture students who have studied projects in Henderson, gave a presentation proposing algae production vessels near the city's Station One power plant on Water Street.

* Solar project: Four University of Kentucky students, including Hendersonian Joanna Grant, made a presentation on their plans to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon to design a solar-powered house.

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