Threat of toxic substances: Increased particulate matter and health hazards from ammonia co-firing

The ammonia-blended power generation method of coal-fired power plants, which is being promoted by the Japanese and South Korean governments, is being used as a means to sustain coal-fired power generation.

According to South Korean government plan, by 2030, 20% ammonia co-firing (based on calorific value) will be applied to existing coal-fired power generators, but the remaining 80% will still be used as coal fuel, which means that the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction effect will be only 20%. Ammonia co-firing in coal-fired power plants justifies the extension of the lifespan of coal-fired power.

However, this transition has the potential to reduce GHG emissions a maximum of only 20 %, and could have a huge adverse effect on air pollution.

Ammonia is a toxic gas that is known to cause breathing difficulties, lung disease, and genetic dysfunction when inhaled. If ammonia is mixed into a coal-fired power plant, some of the input ammonia can be released into the atmosphere without being burned, and considering the government’s plan to use 11 million tons of ammonia as fuel per year, even if only 0.1% of ammonia is emitted, 11,000 tons will be released into the atmosphere.

In addition, ammonia is a precursor to fine dust that forms fine dust in the atmosphere. As a result of calculating the fine dust emission for the power plants where the ammonia co-firing plan was announced, it was confirmed that the fine dust could be increased by 85%.

In particular, in the Chungnam region, where power plants are concentrated, if ammonia co-firing proceeds as currently planned, the amount of fine dust emitted is expected to increase significantly from 5,512 tonnes to 8,430 tonnes, which is equivalent to the effect of the construction of four new coal-fired power plants in the Chungnam region.

Despite the adverse greenhouse gas effects of ammonia co-firing and the health threat posed by fine dust, the South Korean government is encouraging ammonia co-firing through various incentives and subsidies. The risks are expected to become more certain if ammonia blended generators are bid in the clean hydrogen power generation bidding market to be held this year.

The government should scrap the plan to use ammonia in coal-fired power plants and move forward with efforts to end coal-fired power generation by 2030 as soon as possible.

Jamie Kelly, CREA; Seokhwan Jeong, SFOC; Dongjae Oh, SFOC

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