New Haven, an Ohio River coal mining town of 1,550, is home to American Electric Power Co. Inc.’s 1,300-megawatt Mountaineer Plant. The plant has a 1,103-foot-tall chimney and burns 12,000 tons of coal a day to generate electricity for AEP’s 11-state grid, which supplies power to 5.3 million customers.
In the process, it annually belches out 8.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Abutting the plant is an ambitious $100 million experiment: a seven-story, steel-and- fiberglass rectangle, corralled by dull metal catwalks and rattled by motors and pumps. The apparatus traps a portion of the plant’s carbon-dioxide-rich exhaust using an ammonia-based catalyst. (Hence the acrid smell.) The reclaimed CO2 is pumped 8,000 feet underground, where, in theory, it will remain harmlessly out of the atmosphere. The goal of the experiment is to prove that carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS, works, and in so doing, provide one possible solution to global warming, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its July 25 issue. . . .
[W]hen the New Haven project -- hitching one of America’s largest power companies to the U.S. Energy Department’s carbon capture bandwagon -- was launched in 2009, there was a sense of determination and common cause. “It’s time to advance this technology for commercial use,” declared AEP Chief Executive Officer Michael G. Morris. The company planned to replace its pilot with a larger $668 million CCS facility, which would bury more than 1 million metric tons of CO2 a year, splitting construction costs evenly with the Energy Department. Environmentalists heralded the project. . . .
Yet only two years in, the future of CCS is in jeopardy. On July 14, AEP pulled the plug on its CCS efforts, citing a weak economy and the “uncertain status of U.S. climate policy.” CEO Morris said AEP and its partners “have advanced CCS technology more than any other power generator with our successful two-year project to validate the technology. But at this time it doesn’t make economic sense to continue.”
The dimming of CCS’s promise reflects a broader national retreat from the goal of reversing climate change. In private and, to some degree, in public, the company and its executives express frustration that they tried to do the right thing -- only to end up burned. . . .
“Two years ago was the height of optimism,” says Howard J. Herzog, senior research engineer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative who has tracked CCS technologies and research from the outset. Now, without a price on carbon, “the finances are tough. Every other week you hear of a project being canceled. It’s not a pretty picture.”
It’s easy to see why carbon capture once seemed so appealing. It could significantly reduce carbon emissions while keeping coal, still the nation’s chief source of electric power, central to the energy mix. In 2010, President Barack Obama unveiled a goal to bring five to 10 commercial-size CCS demonstration plants on line in the U.S. by 2016. Leaders of the Group of Eight, which includes the U.S., Russia, and Japan, embraced in 2008 a goal to launch 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010 with “broad deployment” of the technology by 2020. All told, governments worldwide committed $22.5 billion to support CCS since the start of 2008, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. An MIT website that tracks worldwide CCS projects lists 68 scattered across 15 countries, 45 of them associated with coal-fired power plants. Yet since the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2010, at least five large-scale CCS projects have been canceled or postponed, while the fate of several others remains doubtful . . .
For all its hype and promise, the challenges of extracting carbon dioxide from smokestacks, compressing it, transporting it, and pumping it underground, where it is supposed to stay for eons, remain daunting.
Costs are a core obstacle, notably those related to what’s called the parasitic load, defined as the amount of energy consumed in the process of removing CO2 from power plant exhaust. Estimated to be $60 to $95 per metric ton of CO2 captured, these costs could add 81 percent or more to consumer power bills, according to a November 2010 Energy Department report. The DOE says its goal is to get those costs down to no more than 30 percent of the price of electricity generated by conventional coal plants and 10 percent more than the price of coal-gasification plants.
Why is CCS so expensive? Based on results so far, storage capacity isn’t the driving cost factor. A 2010 DOE report estimated that between underground saline formations, oil and gas fields, and unmineable coal areas, the U.S. and Canada alone have up to 5,700 years of carbon sequestration capacity.
But capturing carbon is another matter. The clattering, odiferous Mountaineer pilot required the company to add the equivalent of a small, energy-intensive refinery on to the side of the power plant. As AEP’s Spitznogle explains, power plant exhaust is sucked into the capture unit, cooled, and mixed with a chilled ammonia-based solvent, causing the CO2 to precipitate out as a slurry that gets reconverted to a gas. It is compressed into a liquid state, and then pumped into deep, porous underground formations by a series of injection wells. All of which increases the parasitic load.
When the AEP project went on line in 2009, the goal was modest: to capture and bury up to 1.5 percent of Mountaineer’s carbon dioxide. When the project shut down, the New Haven plant had captured about 37,000 metric tons of CO2, a fraction of its target. Spitznogle says that separating out the carbon using “complex chemistry” proved challenging. . . .
If CCS is to work out in the end, he and others agree, the number of pilot projects must increase. “The only way to bring down the cost is to start building a lot of these projects,” says David G. Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego. Again, “the absence of a price on carbon puts everything in limbo.”
The fate of CCS technology is inextricably tied to the controversy over clean coal, a debate which has helped drive a wedge in the green community since many environmentalists -- citing the ecological harm in coal’s extraction, including the process of mountaintop removal -- simply don’t believe coal can ever be made “clean.” But perhaps the biggest blow to CCS’s reputation as a clean technology originated at a farm in southeastern Saskatchewan, about 40 miles above the North Dakota border. . . . [See further here.]
At present, no other technology comes close to matching the potential of CCS in the fight against global warming. The International Energy Agency projects that CCS will have to account for 20 percent of all CO2 reductions if the 2050 goal to cut worldwide greenhouse gases by half of current levels is to be met. Without a successful CCS program, the costs will be 70 percent greater, the agency says. “If we don’t implement carbon capture and storage,” says John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group, “it’s probably game over on climate change.”
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Ken Wells and Benjamin Elgin, "Carbon Capture Hopes Dim as AEP Says It Got Burned at Coal Plant," Bloomberg, July 20, 2011.