Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 11/2015

Environmental protection technology – the key to social acceptance of fossil fuel energy generation

Since the dawn of industrialisation, security of supply and cost-effectiveness have been the guiding principles for power engineers when developing new technologies for generating energy, elec­tricity and heat. Depending on the application in question, combustion engines and/or fossil-fuel-fired boilers with downstream steam turbines formed the basis of technological development. In Germany ambitious limits for pollutants such as NOx, SO2, CO and particulates were set. This development was motivated by the desire of the 1960s to see “blue skies over the Ruhr area” and later regulations for large combustion plants. Towards the end of the 1990s, the issue of climate change and thus the fundamental questioning of fossil-fuel energy generation made its way onto the agenda.

There is no doubt that modern-day society will continue to require heat and power in the future. According to plans by the German Federal Government, 80 % of energy generated in Germany is to come from renewables by 2050, meaning fossil fuels are no more than a bridging solution. However, as we will have to live with existing technology until that day, it needs to be made as environ­mentally friendly as possible. Clean environmental objectives can be derived from the updates to the guidelines on national emis­sions ceilings currently being discussed that set out national limit values for pollutants up to 2030. For Germany, these targets are between just 30 % to 50 % of current emissions values.

Nowadays, matters relating to climate and environmental protec­tion are largely driven by the EU. The European Commission has defined state-of-the-art technology in the BAT reference docu­ments. However realistic these values may be and regardless of the political influences that led to their creation, engineers have now reached a point where everything appears to have been decided and there is nothing left to question. Instead, the focus is on finding solutions that deliver comprehensive protection of soil, water, air and the climate but also meet occupational safety considerations when it comes to operation and maintenance. At the present time, it is still unclear if the solutions to be found will also be acceptable in terms of economics and security of supply.  In a global economy, industry and national economies in particular are dependent on competitive energy prices. Therefore, the philosophy for realising further environmental protection activity cannot be “technology at any cost,” but instead has to be technology where cost-benefit analyses are considered in tandem with possible cross-media ef­fects, i.e. emissions being shifted to other environmental compart­ments. Power engineers need to make politicians aware at an early stage of the complexity of the problem and the consequences of their environmental and climate protection policies.

At present, all current requirements are met by coal-fired power plants. As in a comparison these result in the highest levels of envi­ronmental pollution, however, they are currently subject to great­est scrutiny.

In particular, reducing mercury from coal-fired power plants is being widely discussed just now. Discussion is yet to take place on simply importing technologies from the United States, where the priority is on air-borne emissions which can result in a worsening of the by-products generated. These technologies will need to un­dergo intensive assessment.

Nonetheless, some of the con­tributions in this issue show­case the very latest environ­mental technologies involving retrofits for power plants both within the EU and further afield, with the goal of reducing SO2 and NOx emissions. The topic of CO2 emissions, having moved out of the spotlight in recent times, is also tackled in one of the articles. Meanwhile, other authors deal with the benefits of CFD in biomass combustion. Another paper examines the use of fibrous filters, a well-established technology, but one that has so far failed to gain a foothold in large-scale coal units in the EU. Further authors deal with the availability of energy raw materials, particularly lignite, which will seemingly be indispensable for the foreseeable future when it comes to ensuring affordable energy supply. Cogeneration plants also belong in this category, as they offer resource-efficient provision of heat and power.

This issue recognizes that the topic overall is not only very com­plex but also provides the engineers involved with interesting and exciting challenges. Having said that, tackling these problems with commitment is also an enjoyable experience. Ultimately, the focus needs to be on finding solutions that are socially acceptable and this conflict of objectives between environmental, economic and social aspects is also examined in one of the articles.