18 Feb 2010: Report

CO2 Capture and Storage
Gains a Growing Foothold

The drive to extract and store CO2 from coal-fired power plants is gaining momentum, with the Obama administration backing the technology and the world’s first capture and sequestration project now operating in the U.S. Two questions loom: Will carbon capture and storage be affordable? And will it be safe?

by david biello

On a placid bend of the Ohio River in West Virginia sit two coal-fired power plants. The Philip Sporn Plant boasts four boilers from the 1950s, surrounded by mountains of coal and a series of man-made lakes to contain the toxic residue of its coal-burning. A faint haze emanates from its main smokestack, the only visible sign of the thousands of tons of acid-rain-forming sulfur dioxide, smog-forming nitrogen oxides, and climate-warming carbon dioxide it emits each day, a consequence of the plant’s complete lack of pollution-control technologies. The 1,100 megawatts of electricity it produces will never benefit from such controls, as they are too expensive to install on the multiple small boilers, according to the plant’s owner, American Electric Power.

Courtesy of Alstom
The Mountaineer plant in West Virginia is the first power plant in the world to capture and store underground a portion of its CO2 emissions. The Philip Sporn power plant is visible in the distance.
But just beyond Sporn’s waste ponds stands the steaming cooling tower of American Electric’s Mountaineer Power Plant, which burns 12,000 tons of coal a day to produce steam in a single massive boiler and generate up to 1,300 megawatts of electricity. Roiling white water vapor billows out of its 100-story smokestack, a visible sign of the scrubbers and other technology that remove as much as 98 percent of the plant’s sulfur dioxide emissions and 90 percent of its nitrogen oxides.

And to top it off, since October, an oversized chemistry set employs baker’s ammonia (ammonium carbonate) to strip more than 90 percent of the CO2 from a small portion of the Mountaineer plant’s waste gas and turn it into ammonium bicarbonate. Heat and pressure in another part of the carbon-capture machine turn that back into baker’s ammonia, delivering a nearly pure stream of CO2 gas that is compressed into a liquid and pumped into two wells that drop 1.5 miles beneath the earth. There, the captured CO2 is stored permanently between grains of rock.

If Sporn represents the dirty past of coal-fired electricity generation, Mountaineer is the future — the first power plant in the world to both capture and store underground any part of its CO2 emissions. At this point, Mountaineer stores less than 2 percent of the more than 500,000 metric tons of CO2 pumped out each month by the power plant, which generates enough electricity for 1 million American homes.

So does Mountaineer mean that coal has a future?

President Barack Obama seems to think so, even as he continues to push for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by more than 80 percent by mid-century. To meet that goal, Obama said during his State of the Union
The goal is to make carbon capture and storage widespread within a decade.
address in January, the U.S. must not only develop renewable sources of energy but must also invest in clean coal technologies. A week later, the Obama administration created an interagency task force to develop a federal strategy by August for carbon capture and storage (CCS), the underlying principle of so-called “clean coal.” The goal is to make carbon capture and storage widespread within a decade.

In fact, the administration wants at least five demonstration projects to be in operation by 2016. After all, the U.S. gets more than 50 percent of its electricity from burning coal. “If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal, it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future,” Obama said in a speech to the nation’s governors on Feb. 3.

The technology exists to extract CO2 at coal-burning power plants. The main questions now are cost and safety. Storing liquid CO2 far below the ground provokes a deep unease in some people, who worry that a sudden release could end in asphyxiation as the liquid turns to gas when it rises to the surface. It’s also not necessarily easy to find a geologic formation — or abandoned oil and gas wells — that will safely store the greenhouse gas.

And, ultimately, CCS will do one thing for sure: raise electric bills. In some regions, adding today’s CCS technology would double the cost of electricity and stretch the financial resources of utilities.

Click to enlarge

Courtesy of Alstom
Mountaineer's chilled ammonia unit collects about 1.5 percent of the plant's flue gas and runs it through a chemical process to capture more than 90 percent of the carbon dioxide.
Nevertheless, Mountaineer represents the first small-scale demonstration project to integrate both carbon capture and storage, and American Electric Power may receive $334 million in federal funds to scale up the project to capture 20 percent of the plant’s CO2 emissions.

The Obama administration also has resurrected a planned CCS project known as Futuregen, abandoned by the Bush administration in 2008. A consortium of countries, utilities, and companies with an interest in CCS — ranging from China to coal giant Peabody Energy — has pledged $400 million to build the plant in Mattoon, Ill., with the federal government covering the rest of the $1.5 billion cost.

The proposed plant would first turn coal into gas, and the gas combusted to spin a turbine to produce electricity. The result of this technology — known as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) — is expected to be the removal of roughly 90 percent of the CO2 and almost all of the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from the power plant’s emissions.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that such an IGCC plant would produce electricity at a cost of $103 per megawatt-hour, compared to just $63 per megawatt hour for a pulverized coal-fired power plant without CO2 capture. That math would change if the U.S. Congress one day places a price on carbon dioxide. Various U.S. national laboratories and research universities — as well as the companies commercializing the technology — are striving to reduce that cost further, to as low as just $10 per metric ton of CO2 captured, says CO2 sequestration project leader Rajesh Pawar of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Despite the costs, utilities are moving forward with carbon capture and storage at existing and new coal-fired power plants. The primary driver seems to be the reality of governments eventually placing a cost on carbon dioxide emissions, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Duke Energy
Residents fear a leak as the ground deep beneath their feet fills up with CO2.
has partnered with China’s Huaneng Group to develop carbon capture and storage technology and is considering a plan to capture 18 percent of the CO2 from its planned 630 megawatt, $2.35 billion IGCC plant in Edwardsport, Ind. Carbon capture and storage “is going to cost us money,” says Monte Atwell, general manager of General Electric’s gasification group, which designed the IGCC technology at Edwardsport. But, he added, “That plant is going to work. Failure is not an option.”

Oklahoma-based Tenaska aims to build a $3.5 billion IGCC power plant in Taylorsville, Ill. that would capture 50 percent of its CO2 emissions, and the Erora Group is planning a similar power plant in Henderson County, Ky. Existing power plants are also getting into the act, including the Southern Company, which plans to add its own chemistry set — known as amine scrubbers, which employ a different compound to capture the CO2 — to a power plant near Mobile, Ala.

CCS projects also are moving ahead in Europe. In the vineyards of Jurancon in southeastern France, a project to integrate both CO2 capture and storage is now complete. Last month, an old oil-fired boiler there was converted to burn natural gas in pure oxygen — so-called oxyfuel — and thereby create a relatively pure stream of CO2 that can be siphoned off and stored. The Lacq project will transport roughly 60,000 metric tons of CO2 per year 17 miles to a depleted natural gas field for storage.

The engineering firm, Alstom, which supplied the technology at Lacq, has installed an oxyfuel boiler for a coal-fired power plant in Germany, known as Schwarze Pumpe. That plant also demonstrates, however, one of the
China is partnering with Australia to build several demonstration projects.
main challenges of carbon capture and storage: acceptance from the people who would have to live over the stored CO2. Plans to store the greenhouse gas from Schwarze Pumpe in a nearby natural gas field have foundered on resistance from the local government. A similar CO2 storage effort by Shell in the Netherlands has also been stopped by public resistance from the town of Barendrecht. Residents there fear a leak or declining property values as the ground deep beneath their feet literally fills up with CO2.

Nor are those concerns confined to Europe. “It’s supposed to be better down there than in the air,” says Mayor Scott Hill of the town of Racine, Ohio, directly across the river from the Mountaineer and Sporn power plants. “I wonder what happens long-term... You know, they just tell you what you want to hear.”

Nevertheless, experts from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the International Energy Agency have identified carbon capture and storage as a necessary technology to combat climate change, particularly in developing countries like China, which meets most of its growing demand for electricity by building coal-fired power plants. The Chinese government, for its part, is partnering with its largest coal supplier, Australia, to build several demonstration projects, including one in Beijing that uses an amine scrubber to capture CO2 from a power plant that produces both heat and electricity. And ground has been broken on China’s version of FutureGen, dubbed GreenGen. The 650-megawatt, IGCC power plant is now under construction and could begin storing CO2 in depleted oil fields near the city of Tianjin as soon as 2015.

“Even with the most optimistic [projections] on renewables and nuclear, you still have 60 percent fossil fuels by 2030 with massive emissions,” said Philippe Paelinck, director of CO2 business development at Alstom. “If CCS technology is not accepted by the public, we will not be able to arrive at the necessary levels of emissions — and those are zero for the power sector by 2050.”

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After all, the coal-fired power plants already built or planned in just the first 10 years of the 21st century would end up emitting more carbon dioxide in the next 25 years — 660 billion metric tons — than the 524 billion metric tons that have been emitted since the dawn of the Industrial Age in 1751, notes George Peridas of the Natural Resources Defense Council. And the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a properly selected storage site would safely stow away 99 percent of the CO2 generated by a coal-burning power plant for at least 1,000 years.

But even if all that CO2 is captured and stored, coal will not be entirely clean, whether because of the impacts of the mountaintop removal mining that provides some of the fuel or the toxic ash that burning coal leaves behind. The ash ponds at the Sporn power plant, just over a grassy berm from Mountaineer, have been identified as a “high hazard” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mountaineer has captured and stored more than 3,000 metric tons of CO2 in the Copper Ridge dolomite formation since Oct. 1, and the company aims to capture as much as 100,000 metric tons a year in the future. “As with any new technology, it’s had its ups and downs,” says Gary Spitznogle, the project’s manager at AEP. “[But] it’s run long enough that we’re confident it works.”

POSTED ON 18 Feb 2010 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Climate Energy Energy Forests Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Water North America North America 


David - as far as it goes, the case you make for CCS is appealing to the layman, probably to the extent of justifying hundreds of billions of taxpayers' credit guarantees, besides outright grants for its deployment, given coal's commercial dominance of power supply.

Yet you overlook some rather fundamental constraints on the option's feasibility at a significant scale. Given your remarkable CV, this is unfortunate.

As has been reported recently, the capture & storage of just 10% of the CO2 from current coal burning would require infrastructure able to deliver a daily volume of high pressure liquid CO2 equal to that of our entire global oil usage (about 86 million barrels per day).
Note that the 10% figure is for current coal usage, not for the increased usage proposed by coal's proponents.

The impact of CCS on the EROEI of coal power is also problematic (some may want to search : "Energy Return On Energy Invested") -
As a finite resource, coal's extraction has already taken the best of the endowment in various countries. Using a substantial fraction of the energy from an increasingly expensive fuel as a means to power its CCS capacity would become self-defeating as reserves were further depleted over the decades needed for such a vast technology to be deployed.

A third basic flaw in the CCS prospectus is that it does not and will not operate in a commercial vacuum.
Its reliance on the future pricing of CO2 for commercial competitiveness might be relevant versus the extreme capital costs of nuclear power, but it would give no benefit at all versus the numerous non-fossil power options now being deployed, (consider Baseload Solar, Geothermal, etc) let alone those options that have yet to attract the massive investment that their potentials warrant (consider Offshore Wave, High Altitude Offshore Wind, Afforestation for Energy, etc).

These and many other options will be attracting innovative engineers and investors around the world, to cut the production costs of options that need no finance & energy budgets just to address their own pollution. They are also liable to attract premium pricing from a concerned public.

In light of these and other constraints, the idea that CCS is going to be remotely relevant as a practical pollution control that justifies coal-firing seems far fetched.
Its one patently credible role today is a jam-tomorrow excuse for continuing coal-firing, rather than Govt., via EPA if necessary, having to initiate the requisite war-footing switch to non-fossil supply to serve a smaller, more efficient demand.

Posted by Lewis Cleverdon on 18 Feb 2010

For polititians to get elected they need to coddle coal in many states and on that basis I suppose exploring CCS is seen as tolerable. But surely with the handwriting on the wall these fossil fuel investors must be figuring how to transition their in vestments to low carbon and renewables. However the man made carbon capturing tree will be needed no matter what else happens. If this is part of a system that converts the carbon to safe molecules instead of storage all the better. Reducing GHG emissions and removing CO2 from the air are both needed, now! It seems that even at 360 ppm the oceans are to rise almost 3 ft. by 2100 according to the NOVA show "Extreme Ice".
Posted by Patrick W. on 18 Feb 2010

We're pleased to see President Obama’s energy initiatives have started serious conversation about the continued use of coal to generate electricity and the commercial deployment of clean coal technology in this publication and others in the environmental community.

But we disagree that deploying these technologies will cause consumers to suffer higher energy costs. Public-private technology development partnerships between the energy industry and government can help protect utility customers from higher electricity bills – and studies have shown that these investments pay off.

According to one recent report commissioned by my organization, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, American taxpayers see a quick and significant return on federal investment in clean coal technologies – including carbon capture and sequestration. In fact, by 2020, we will see a return of $13 for every dollar the government invests.

Posted by Steve Gates on 19 Feb 2010

Clean coal is impossible to bring in at a reasonable price and is mostly a diversion by big coal. Lets focus on real renewables and not by what is straight propaganda from entrenched business interests that are not part of the solution.

Posted by Shaun Snapp on 20 Feb 2010

One thing not mentioned is that CO2 can actually be useful--and command a positive price--when used to force oil out of depleted fields. The Carter administration coal gasification plant in Beulah, ND, while not economic in its own right, sells CO2 to Encana, a Canadian oil company, which then pipes it more than 100 miles for injection in tertiary oil recovery. Denbury Resources, a U.S. oil company, uses and sells large quantities of naturally occurring CO2 for this purpose.

I like IGCC better than post combustion capture. It requires less energy and captures much of the mercury that would travel long distances if the coal was burned directly.

Use of CO2 for secondary oil production also helps deal with what I personally think is the most serious part of the energy supply problem in the long run--the relative scarcity of liquid fuels, as distinct from natural gas, coal and electricity. Until we have electric or NG powered cars, both feasible but expensive, we will continue to have a high demand for liquids.

Posted by Bob Healy on 20 Feb 2010

Refrigeration -60C and pumped down 1-2mile at +120C to gas and expecting it to be stable and stored for Kyoto 70yrs. Costs exceed CO2 capture credit trade value! Would you live nearby?

Living matter gained nitrogen sulfates and CO2 from volcanoes before modern man. Power plants emission could be captured via nature’s 5billion year vegetation sequestration process! So planting out appropriate C4 CO2 sinks meeting Kyoto will capture emissions, reverse deserts, and in so doing restart rain and trace element cycles. The later repairs the nation grows food and potable water and many jobs.

If CO2e Geo-sequestration was the go nature would have invented a route. New advice is need here!

Robert Vincin reversing CO2 in PRC replicating nature at a fraction of your cost.

Posted by Ribert Vincin on 23 Feb 2010

No, no, no! The whole point is to be sucking current CO2 out of the atmosphere (and doing who-knows-what with it), NOT continuing to spew new CO2 and capturing that (to do who-knows-what with it).

For the sake of the children, can we please start putting life before the economy?

Posted by Julie Johnston on 26 Feb 2010

I think there is a lot of more promising technologies : for example Google wants to promote and develop Enhanced Geothermal Systems. These new techniques produce electricity by harnessing the energy from hot rock deep below the earth's surface. Far better than old coal burning systems, even if they are "greener".

Posted by Nicolas Chevallier on 01 Mar 2010

I'm also pleased to see President Obama’s energy initiatives have started serious conversation about the continued use of coal to generate electricity and the commercial deployment of clean coal technology in this publication and others in the environmental community. For polititians to get elected they need to coddle coal in many states and on that basis I suppose exploring CCS is seen as tolerable. But surely with the handwriting on the wall these fossil fuel investors must be figuring how to transition their in vestments to low carbon and renewables. However the man made carbon capturing tree will be needed no matter what else happens. If this is part of a system that converts the carbon to safe molecules instead of storage all the better. Reducing GHG emissions and removing CO2 from the air are both needed, now!

Posted by petra on 07 Jun 2011

Probably the most important part of your article: The technology exists to extract CO2 at coal-burning power plants. The main questions now are cost and safety. Storing liquid CO2 far below the ground provokes a deep unease in some people, who worry that a sudden release could end in asphyxiation as the liquid turns to gas when it rises to the surface. It’s also not necessarily easy to find a geologic formation — or abandoned oil and gas wells — that will safely store the greenhouse gas.

Posted by izdelava spletnih strani on 08 Jun 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
david bielloABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Biello has been covering energy and the environment for nearly a decade, the last four years as an associate editor at Scientific American. He also hosts 60-Second Earth, a Scientific American podcast covering environmental news, and is working on a documentary with Detroit Public Television on the future of electricity. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Biello has written about how geothermal technology and solar thermal technology can help meet the world’s energy needs, and explored the potential of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using “artificial trees.”



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