Front Porch Blog

USC’s goal: Cleaner coal

$5 million gift from industry will finance research program

The University of South Carolina’s future fuels research program received a major boost Tuesday with a $5 million gift to study cleaner ways to burn coal.
The gift – from the state-owned utility Santee Cooper and the state’s electric cooperatives – could create a $10 million research program that would employ up to 30 researchers.

The new Center for Economic Excellence would work to find ways to reduce carbon, mercury and other emissions from coal-burning electric power plants. USC is seeking $5 million in matching funds from the state’s endowed chairs program.

Technology to clean up coal-fired plants comes at a crucial time for South Carolina, which has a fast-growing economy and parallel appetite for more electricity.

Both the Interstate 85 corridor in the Upstate and the burgeoning Midlands are bumping up against Environmental Protection Agency limits on air pollution that, if breached, could trigger limits on economic growth.

Still, coal, considered the “dirtiest” way to generate energy, figures into South Carolina’s future.

“We can’t keep the lights on without coal,” said Michael Couick, chief executive officer of The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina Inc. “We must take a leading role in reducing carbon emissions.”

But some environmental advocates are so alarmed by the impact of burning coal that they would sharply limit the construction of new coal-fired plants. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, in a report last year, called on state and local governments to stop construction of new coal-fired plants without first decommissioning older plants.

South Carolina has 13 coal-fired power plants. Santee Cooper alone has 11 coal-fired plants, and three more on the drawing boards. In addition, it is working with its partner, Columbia-based SCANA Corp., on a proposal for a new nuclear plant beside their existing unit in Fairfield County.

Santee Cooper president Lonnie Carter, noting that his utility provides 40 percent of the electric power in South Carolina, said the $5 million gift is an attempt to create a “laser-like focus” on cleaning up coal plants so the state’s growth will not mean more pollution.

For USC, the opportunity to participate in cleaning up one of the world’s most vexing pollution problems is irresistible.

USC president Andrew Sorensen said the gift was “an expression of confidence in the university’s energy research.”

“It is a chance for the university to be known internationally” for its innovation in cleaning up the environment, Sorensen said.

Michael Amiridis, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing, said he is courting a scientist who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and an expert in the field of coal research to head the new team.

The university is in a strong position to attract a top-tier researcher for the coal research chair. At a time when federal funding of basic scientific research has stagnated, South Carolina’s Legislature continues to allocate $30 million a year to its endowed chairs fund.

Lawmakers already have provided $120 million for the three research universities to hire world-class researchers, and have earmarked an additional $30 million in the budget the General Assembly is negotiating.

Carter said the electric utilities conducted a nationwide search for the best institution to receive their research funds, and concluded USC was the best place to invest their money.

Amiridis said USC’s engineering and computing school has expertise in materials science, which is key to filtering emissions, and in computing, which facilitates modeling of molecular structures. The new funds will allow the college to expand its research into ways to control carbon dioxide pollution.

Courtesy of JAMES T. HAMMOND –


Energy producers say coal is an indispensable part of the nation’s future. Environmentalists say coal-fired power plants should be limited, blaming them for raising smog levels and for mercury pollution.

Energy producers say coal:
Is plentiful – There is a 250-year supply of the fossil fuel in America.
Can burn more cleanly – New technology has slashed emissions to historic lows.
Environmentalists say coal:
Presents a health hazard – Coal emissions contribute to high ozone levels, which make breathing more difficult for older people and children with respiratory problems.
Needs tougher regulations – Environmentalists argue power companies historically have failed to adequately invest in modern emissions controls because of the costs.





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