‘Example to the world:’ Wilsonville facility turning coal into clean burning gas

Southern Company officials may refer to the $280 million Power Systems Developmental Facility in Wilsonville as a &uot;giant science project,&uot; but a prominent official from the U.S. Department of Energy calls it a &uot;shining star for Alabama and an example to the world.&uot;

Mike Smith, assistant secretary of Fossil Energy and a recent presidential appointee, toured the Shelby County facility last Friday and spoke highly of the technology being researched there which turns coal into a clean-burning gas.

That technology, he said, is an important part of President George W. Bush’s Clean Coal Power Initiative, a 10-year effort to reduce the environmental impact of using coal through new technology and efficiency improvements.

The project is a partnership between the United States government and several energy companies including Southern Company, which operates the facility.

The project began in 1991 but did not start operation until 1996. The Department of Energy has supplied 80 percent of the funding, with the other 20 percent coming from

Southern Company and other energy companies.

&uot;This facility is truly unique in the world. Visitors from many, many countries have toured and talked with you about its unique place in technology as we continue to advance the use of coal in an environmentally

friendly way,&uot; Smith told employees of the facility during his visit.

Smith noted that coal is a home-grown secure resource that already generates about 50 percent of the country’s electric supply. He said there is a 250-year supply of coal in the U.S.

&uot;As the country grows and expands, we are going to continue to utilize more coal for electric generation. But that comes with some challenges,&uot; he said. &uot;This facility is built to meet those challenges … to make that utilization of coal a much more environmentally friendly source. Your partnership is greatly appreciated.&uot;

Randall Rush, manager of the Wilsonville plant, said the project bridges the gap between

traditional research and development and the commercialization for electricity.

&uot;The technology here has the potential to replace the current way we utilize coal and in a more environmentally friendly way,&uot; he said.

Rush said the plant has yet to be directly used to generate power locally. He expects the technology to be implemented somewhere in Alabama within the next few years.

Coal gasification, he said, will have much lower emissions by current standards and if utilized will help decrease ozone pollution both nationally and in Alabama