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Emissions From Power Plants: What You Should Know

written by: johnzactruba • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 5/6/2013

Power plants produce a lot of emissions in the process of converting energy from fossil fuels to Electricity. Should this be a concern for us?

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    Europe still remembers 1816 “the year without summer”. During this time the sun's rays were blocked by an ominious chemical and dust cloud over Europe that led to dark days, crop failures, famine and riots. The dust cloud was caused by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815. This was the most violent volcanic eruption recorded in history, which sent millions tons of lava, rock and dust along with Sulphurous gases high into the atmosphere. Although this occured thousands of kilometers away in the Indonesian Archipilago, Europe faced the consequences the spring and summer of the next year, “the year without summer”.

    The question that faces us today is if the emissions from industrial factories, power plants, vehicles and other pollution causers can create a similar effect to Tambora today.

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    Coal fired thermal power plants are one of the main contributors for atmospheric pollution and greenhouse gases. Emissions that come from these plants could be categorized into three different categories:

    • Gaseous emissions Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen Dioxide which lead to global warming and acid rain.
    • Particulate emissions - this fine dust that is emanated from the stacks of power plants is a health hazard.
    • Trace elements like Mercury, Cadmium and Lead which are also health hazards.
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    These emissions are formed due to the Combustion process when coal is burned to produce heat. Some are avoidable, some can be controlled or reduced, some cannot be avoided.

    Except for Carbon Dioxide all other emissions can be either controlled or captured with available technology at a reasonable cost.

    Some of these emissions depend on the quality of the fuel used. For example, sulphur dioxide depends on the amount of sulphur in coal. This is also true with the trace lements.

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    Carbon Dioxide- CO2.

    Carbon dioxide is an unavoidable part of the combustion process. Small reductions are possible by process adjustments. Major reductions in CO2 can only be achieved by a drastic change in Power generation technology. Power generation mix has to shift from coal to other renewable resources to really eliminate CO2. Carbon capture and sequesterian systems are a costly way of eliminating a problem which will only burden the common man in developing countries. Commitments from governments to change the power generation technology and mix is of outmost importance. For this to happen the technology in developed nations must be improved.

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    Let us hope at COP15 Copenhagen, UNFCCC and world leaders agree to a rapid change in power generation technology.


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