I got lucky last fall. Together with a friend I toured what many consider America’s most important power plant to see the future of coal. But it turns out: There is nothing to see, really. Long pipes connect the colossal Mountaineer Power Plant on the Ohio River to a structure four stories tall made of metal beams and aluminum tubes. Three hundred feet further down the road a pump station sits listlessly under the winter sky, two pipes disappear in the ground. That’s it. Nothing is moving. But energy companies and politicians along with environmentalists the world over are watching closely what’s happening in New Haven, West Virginia.
Here the United States government and American Electric Power, America’s biggest provider of electricity, are developing a technology that attaches to a coal plant, filters carbon dioxide out of the power plant’s emissions and stores the gas directly underground. Their goal: Pioneering a process that reduces CO2 emissions, which significantly contribute to manmade global warming, and thus creating a future for the most abundant energy resource in the US. The pilot project is the first of it’s kind in the world. It got under way in September and the Department of Energy just announced that it would fund its expansion with $334 million dollars.
The importance of the project becomes clear when we consider the role coal plays in the US economy – and in climate change science. America generates nearly 50 percent of it’s electricity with coal and is home to the lion share of the world’s known coal reserves, some 27 percent. At the same time, the fuel is responsible for 80 percent of all CO2 emissions in the power sector and a big reason why the United States, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, produces more than 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Enter carbon capture and sequestration, as the technology at the 30-year-old Moutaineer plant is called. Or CCS for short. Essentially it consists of a chemical factory and two deep wells, AEP engineer Gary Spitznogle told me. “In the factory smoke that has been diverted from the plant’s chimney is mixed with a chilled ammonia-based chemical. Once the mixture is heated, the carbon dioxide separates itself and is pumped nearly two miles into the earth under a protective layer of sandstone,” explains Spitznogle. There the liquid CO2 displaces saltwater from fine pores in a layer of dolomite and stays put, theoretically of tens of thousands of years.
At the moment AEP is operating a small-scale validation of the technology together with the French company Alstom, which captures less than 2 percent of the CO2 emitted by the power plant. But with the financial assistance of the federal government, equivalent to half the cost of the projects next phase, AEP plans to scale-up the project until 2015. At that point the CCS project is supposed to capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from 235 megawatt of the plant’s 1,300 megawatt capacity. With the help of of CCS technology AEP, America’s biggest emitter of CO2, could eliminate all CO2 emissions by retrofitting their fleet of existing coal plants by 2025, says the company’s CEO Mike Morris.
But whether or not those long-term goals are achievable, remains to be seen. From the power generator’s perspective lowering the operating cost is the first priority. CCS is only cost-effective for AEP if the technology consumes 20 percent of the electricity generated in the plant or less – currently the test unit is using 35 percent. At this price coal power could easily cost as much as or more than nuclear or solar power. Project risk analyses also list geological shifts, earthquakes and contamination of water supplies as potential complications, according to the New York Times, all of which worry residents. Most importantly though, in order to move the CO2 emitted by all 600 US coal-plant to places where the gas could be stored underground, a giant national pipeline network would have to be constructed. Many regions of US have little to no storage capacity.
That’s why advocates of renewable energy think CCS the wrong investment. David Holtz, executive Director of Progress Michigan, an environmental group, told the New York Times CCS resembled a methadone cure for addiction. He argues the industry would do better to go cold turkey. “There is no evidence that burying carbon dioxide in the earth is a better strategy than aggressively pursuing alternatives that clearly are better for the environment and will in the long-run be less costly.”
Power generators like AEP disagree and are eager to see the New Haven CCS project supply evidence of coal’s cleaner future. The rest of the world will be watching too.