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Tests Begin at Wyo. Carbon Storage Site as Challenges Loom Large

Even if the project succeeds in identifying a massive underground storage location for CO2, that's only half the battle in commercializing CCS technology

By Emanuele Bompan and Lucy Flood, SolveClimate News

Aug 9, 2011
(Page 3 of 3 )
Wyoming Carbon Underground Storage Project's (WY-CUSP)  test well

WY-CUSP is an obvious site for burying emissions from Pacific Corp's nearby Jim Bridger coal-fired plant, Wyoming's single largest source of carbon pollution, though there are no commercial plans yet to build a carbon-capture plant there.

If that were to change, the project, or any similar effort, would face the same core challenges faced by all CSS pilots — the enormous expense involved in removing CO2 from power plant exhaust, purifying the gas, compressing it into a supercritical liquid, and piping it to a permanent reservoir like the type WY-CUSP hopes to become. That means Wyoming could be left with a huge storage facility and no way to financially capture CO2 and pump it into the reservoir.

Most experts agree that without Congressional action to put a price on carbon there are few incentives to encourage steady investment and change the bleak financial picture for CCS, especially in this current economic climate.

"[CCS] is not going to be a volunteer effort," said Krevor. "If there is no price on carbon, if there is no regulatory, incentive or financial incentive to do this, this will not happen."

AEP spokesperson Pat D. Hemlepp told SolveClimate News that it won't consider restarting its CCS project until a climate change law gets passed. "When they pass a federal climate bill, AEP will likely start again its project in West Virginia."

Thomas Welch of the DOE press office said in an email that the agency is interested in a voluntary carbon market as a method to help commercial-scale projects move forward.

But whether a carbon trading plan could cut costs fast enough and give companies enough of a business reason to keep the technology afloat remains unclear.

In Europe, Viable in 2020s

For instance, under Europe's cap-and-trade policy, the six-year-old Emissions Trading System, or ETS, it's still far cheaper for coal plant operators to buy emissions certificates to offset global warming pollution than to install CCS technologies at their facilities.

One report released last month by Zero Emission Platform, a Brussels-based organization that studies and promotes CCS, said the technology could reach economic viability by 2020, but only if the price of carbon triples from the current average of roughly $17 per ton in 10 years and/or if CCS projects begin to sell carbon credits on a voluntary carbon market.

This seemingly endless road of financial uncertainty for CCS has some analysts looking elsewhere to help reduce coal plant emissions. For his part, Hughes of Post Carbon Institute favors "ultra-supercritical" coal combustion, which he calls the most-efficient coal-burning technology in the world today.

The technology can burn 25 percent less coal than a conventional facility and emits 25 percent fewer CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced, he said. Another option is co-generation, in which waste heat is captured, substantially cutting the amount of coal needed to be burned to get the same amount electricity, Hughes added.

But investing in energy efficiency should be the top priority, he said. "The number one thing we have to do is figure out how to use a lot less coal."

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