Capturing CO2:  March 2011

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Advances in technology could make ‘clean coal’ a reality, but can we afford it? 

By Glen Andersen

A lot of factors will shape America’s energy future, and the cost of the technology needed to reduce coal emissions  is among the most important.

The capture and storage of  carbon dioxide from coal plants has been demonstrated at a number of pilot projects. The challenge is whether this technology can be expanded to be competitive on a commercial scale, and whether the nation is willing and able to invest the resources to do so.

Generating electricity produces 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and coal-fired power plants are responsible for the majority of them. There are many different types of greenhouse gas emissions, but CO2 is the one most produced by human activity.

Since coal produces nearly half the nation’s electricity—and more than 75 percent in many states—the federal government, utilities, states and many interest groups want to find a viable way to capture carbon dioxide from coal and permanently store it underground. CO2 emissions are a concern for many people who believe they contribute to climate change.

“Carbon capture and sequestration will be necessary to alleviate concerns in the public, so investing in this technology is a good move for any state with coal reserves,” says Illinois Representative Dan Reitz. 

The future of carbon capture and storage, however, is uncertain. In the past two years, numerous coal-fired power plants have been cancelled, and many will be phased out because of the cost of meeting new clean air requirements, local opposition, uncertainty about the costs of potential greenhouse gas regulation and lack of financial support. If a carbon tax, cap-and-trade program or EPA efforts to reduce greenhouse gases are established, the costs of operating coal-fired power plants are likely to increase. Since coal plants last 40 to 60 years, lenders and investors realize that higher operational costs, even if they occur 10 or 15 years in the future, could hurt the profitability of plants and the ability of plant owners to pay back loans.

“The biggest impediment to new power sources is fear of additional costs in the future,” says Reitz. “People are afraid to upgrade or build new plants only to find out they’ll have to spend more money in five years if rules change.”

These concerns are especially serious in states that export or are highly reliant on coal. Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kentcuky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming get more than 75 percent of their electricity from coal, while 13 others get between 50 and 75 percent from coal. They often have cheaper electricity than much of the nation, and are likely to see the largest effects from policies that make coal-fired electricity more costly.

Even without new policies on greenhouse gas emissions, existing environmental regulations on other emissions, including mercury and sulfur dioxide, are making coal plant operations more expensive. A recent forecast by ICF International, a global consulting group, predicted the costs of upgrading to meet these regulations, even without new climate policy, would lead to the closing of up to 20 percent of U.S. coal plants by 2020 since owners are likely to find new natural gas plants to be a cheaper alternative.

State lawmakers will have a big role to play in this energy debate. Some already have jumped in and passed legislation creating incentives for projects to explore carbon capture, set CO2 emission standards for their state and passed climate bills. Others have passed resolutions against federal action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Complicated Technology

Scientists are investigating two key methods for capturing CO2.

The first, which removes the gas after coal is burned, can be used for existing coal plants, although it is expensive and uses nearly one-third of the energy generated by the coal plant in the process. To help companies defray costs and get started on pilot projects, the federal government is providing significant funding. Much is being learned from these pilot projects, and efficiency is expected to increase as operators and researchers improve extraction techniques.

Pilot projects also are underway in other parts of the world, including Germany, Norway, Canada and the Netherlands. China, which relies on coal for 70 percent of its electricity, is also planning a number of projects, and is collaborating with the United States on a $150 million effort on carbon capture technology.

Another approach removes the CO2 from coal before it’s burned. This requires gasification technology, which involves heating the coal to release a gas that is then burned to generate electricity. These facilities—called integrated gasification combined-cycle plants—are referred to as “carbon capture ready,” since removing carbon from the gas before combustion is more efficient and less expensive than removing it after combustion as in a traditional coal plant. Several such plants, which are more expensive than conventional coal plants, are slated to be built in the next few years with the help of federal grants and state incentives.

The Storage Challenge

After it’s captured, CO2 must be piped to a site where it will be injected deep underground. The oil industry has successfully been injecting carbon dioxide into the ground to help in removing oil for many years. In North Dakota, more than 1.5 million tons a year of carbon dioxide have been captured from a coal-to-methane process, then piped to Saskatchewan, Canada, to be used in oil recovery.

There are 3,900 miles of CO2 pipeline already in place in the United States, mainly used to deliver CO2 to sites where it is injected to help extract oil. If national climate goals were adopted, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimate that an additional 6,000 miles of pipeline would be needed by 2030. That’s a fairly small amount since most coal plants are relatively close to where CO2 could be stored.

When the CO2 is pumped underground, it remains in liquid form at high pressure and fills in spaces in between grains of rock and sand. Oil fields, gas fields, coal seams and saline formations are potential deposit sites. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory estimates 450 years worth of CO2 emissions could be stored in known saline formations alone.

The Cost Hurdle

Success with pilot plants, the existence of significant storage options, and industry experience with CO2 injection and storage indicate the cost may be a far greater challenge than technical hurdles.

As research continues and more pilot projects are built, energy experts are better able to predict the costs. Some companies, in light of the high costs, are deciding to invest their resources elsewhere.

Southern Company, which was awarded $295 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to capture and store 1 million tons of CO2 from a coal plant in Alabama, ended up pulling out of the nearly $700 million project, deciding it would be more effective to make its clean energy investments elsewhere.

In North Dakota, Basin Electric Power Cooperative put plans for carbon capture and storage on hold after investing $6 million in research, which found capturing 25 percent of the CO2 from one of its coal units would cost $500 million. According to Basin Electric, the decision was driven by the lack of economic viability, uncertainty about future environmental regulations and lack of a long-term energy plan for the country.

States Are Key

Legislators write the laws that create incentives and address long-term liability, ownership, permitting and safety issues regarding injection and long-term storage of carbon dioxide. Companies involved in carbon capture and storage are not likely to operate unless liability issues are clarified and incentives are provided to offset costs.

Lawmakers in Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming already have addressed operating procedures and liability for carbon storage. Others, such as Illinois, are considering legislative action.

“We have a lot of coal, and we need to learn how to use that commodity in a way that is as clean as possible while still being cost-effective,” says Texas Representative Phil King.

King helped pass a bill in Texas that provides a $100 million franchise tax credit to the first three coal plants that are operational and certified to capture a significant portion of their carbon dioxide. Since Texas uses a large amount of imported CO2, which is injected into the ground to aid in oil recovery, the bill offers companies engaged in this activity a 70 percent reduction in their severance taxes if they buy the captured CO2 from one of the Texas plants instead of importing it from New Mexico.

“The bill is an incentive to the first three plants to overcome the prototype costs they will experience trying to figure out how to put this new technology together,” says King.

Summit Power Inc. is the first to begin building an integrated gasification combined-cycle power plant under the new law that will capture CO2  and pipe it to oil fields for enhanced oil recovery. Operations are slated to begin in 2014.

Lawmakers have created numerous incentives for carbon capture efforts, including tax breaks and grants, although emissions standards and greenhouse gas reduction targets also provide strong incentives. Five states now have carbon dioxide emissions standards for power plants, and eight have climate laws, most of which require a 60 percent to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.

To meet these requirements, carbon capture and sequestration will probably be necessary. One idea being discussed at the national level, a clean energy standard, already has been established in Ohio. The Buckeye State’s alternative energy resource rules require utilities to produce 25 percent of their electricity from alternative energy sources by 2024. Half of the requirement can be met with nonrenewable clean energy technologies, such as coal plants with carbon capture. The standard is similar to the renewable electricity standards that have now been passed in 28 other states, although it expands the requirements to include clean energy in addition to renewable sources.

Message From D.C.

The federal government currently is contributing $3.4 billion toward carbon capture research and development through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Much of this money is going to pilot projects, research and development, and personnel training.

The first active project in the United States, American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Power Plant in West Virginia, has received some money under the act and is eligble to receive as much as $334 million. American Electric Power, one of the largest electricity producers in the country, has invested about $75 million in this new technology. The Mountaineer project retrofits  an exisiting coal plant with a chilled ammonia process to remove 100,000 tons of CO2 a year, which is then injected underground.

Pilot projects such as these are providing experience with this process, although further research and development are needed to make it economically competitive. With the first phase of the Mountaineer project complete, the company is waiting for more government funding and trying to raise its own money to expand to the next stage. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already regulates underground storage of CO2 under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but its greatest effect may come from enforecement of greenhouse gas emissions regulations under the Clean Air Act. The agency has issued final rules for all facilities that inject CO2 underground, although deadlines have already been extended in some cases.  As EPA begins requiring larger emitters to report and eventually limit their greenhouse gas emissions that may affect utility’s ability to build a new coal plant without adding carbon capture and storage capabilities. When and how EPA will decide to require reductions and whether their efforts will be blocked or stalled by Congress, is still uncertain.

EPA is requiring larger emitters to report and eventually limit their greenhouse gas emissions, which may affect a utility’s ability to build a new coal plant without adding carbon capture and storage capabilities. When and how EPA will decide to require reductions, and whether their efforts will be blocked or stalled by Congress, is still uncertain.

Massive amounts of resources will be needed to research, develop and  commercialize carbon capture and storage technologies. That raises the question: Who wants to invest without clear signals from federal and state entities?

Although EPA is moving forward on greenhouse gas regulation and the U.S. Department of Energy is supporting development of carbon capture, a clear energy plan is missing. As well, some in the divided Congress are threatening to limit efforts to regulate greenhouse gases because of doubts about their effect on climate change.

“It’s going to be very difficult to build a coal plant,” says King, “unless [a power company] can show it could meet high environmental standards, including capturing CO2.”

Check out more resources on carbon capture and storage at

Who's In Charge of Captured Carbon?

Before any carbon storage can occur on a large scale, issues of liability for leaks or damage caused by stored carbon must be addressed.

Although carbon dioxide (CO2) is considered to be a safe, nontoxic gas in low concentrations, it could be dangerous in the event of a massive leak. Those responsible for captured CO2 are liable for any harm or loss that arises from the gas leaking out of pipelines or storage sites, which could include damage to the environment, human health, drinking water or property.

Injection pipes hold the greatest risk for leaks. In 2008, a leak from one in the Netherlands killed a small group of ducks. Since CO2 injection has been used for many years in the process of enhanced oil recovery, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming already have laws  addressing liability issues. They generally hold the well operator liable while injecting the CO2. Similar bills are pending in Illinois, Michigan and New York.

Operators must also follow federal rules just completed under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The rules require injection well operators to protect sources of underground drinking water.

Long-Term Liability

If the site is selected properly, the risks of a leak after the well is closed are extremely low since CO2 is deposited under impermeable layers of rock.

Most states transfer the liability to the state 10 to15 years after the well is closed. Louisiana and Texas set up trust funds for their carbon storage sites that will pay for long-term regulation, monitoring and remediation of the sites. The money will come from a fee for each ton of CO2 injected into the site. Louisiana’s fund has a cap of $5 million per operator.

Although short-term liability for operators is widely accepted, there are those who believe the long-term liability should also be with operators. They argue operators would be more alert to risks and potential damage when injecting CO2. Proponents of state long-term liability, however, suggest it’s necessary because of the need for certainty, the potential for high cost, and insurance and legal concerns.

“The philosophy in Wyoming is those who use the power are the best folks to bear the costs of long-term liability,” says Wyoming Representative Tom Lubnau. “Ultimately it is the power consumer, and not the taxpayer who should bear the costs of long-term liability.” 

If CO2 does leak from a storage site, the entity that has been deemed liable will be responsible for the CO2 under federal statutes such as the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act; and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
—Julia Verdi, NCSL

The Natural Gas Factor

A key factor challenging the nation’s ongoing reliance on coal is the availability of natural gas.

The recent discovery of large domestic natural gas supplies has led to lower natural gas prices and made it easier for utilities and investors to support natural gas plants as a replacement for coal.

Natural gas has many things working in its favor relative to coal. It produces about the half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal and far fewer regulated pollutants. It’s easier to secure permits for gas-fired plants because they’re cleaner and there is less community resistance. Also, the cost of a new gas plant is less than a new coal plant, and the gas-fired plants would be affected less by carbon regulation, so financiers see them as a safer long-term investment.

Glen Andersen directs the Energy program at NCSL.