The world's first coal plant to pipe its global-warming emissions underground will soon grind into action in West Virginia, at a time when support for funding a global carbon capture and storage (CCS) scale-up may be waning.
The 1,300-MW Mountaineer plant, one of America's largest coal facilities, will house the first commercial CCS demonstration of its kind. The operation will nab 1.5 percent of the plant's annual CO2 output and bury it 8,000 feet in a layer of dolomite rock.
The eyes of the world will be locked on the $100 million-plus experiment in the coming months. But the hype may be getting ahead of reality.
The announcement comes in the wake of recent reports that America's biggest coal companies are "spending peanuts" on vital CCS research. According to the Center for American Progress, members of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) — which includes Big Coal's heaviest hitters — have committed $3.6 billion to CCS R&D through 2017. That's less than two cents for every $1 of their profits.
For its part, the federal government is investing $2.8 billion. But if the House-approved American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) becomes law, a considerable $60 billion will flood into the sector over 15 years. Needless to say, ACCCE has been spending millions to sabotage that bill in the Senate.
Across the Atlantic, the UK could soon cut funding to build four CCS plants, the Guardian reports. The EU's goal of having 12 commercial facilities up and running by 2015 is also in serious jeopardy, says Reuters. Countries there are now on track to build none.
On top of that, a declaration by the 136-nation International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has condemned the decision of the International Energy Agency (IEA) to classify nuclear and CCS projects as "clean energy" under the UN funding program known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
"The Clean Development Mechanism is not called clean out of any reason – only 100% renewable energy is clean. CCS technology on the other hand is nothing but a fata morgana, technically feasible on a larger scale not before 2020," IRENA said in a statement.
IRENA says CCS will steal money better spent on renewable energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal. Supporters of CCS, though, particularly those from developing nations, say that the CDM would provide a welcome source of revenue to countries that pursue CCS, and in turn help make the technology viable on a commercial scale.
In any case, the fact remains: There is not a single fully integrated power plant with CCS built at scale. Clearly, something has to budge.
Back in March, researchers from Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs issued a warning shot for strong international cooperation on CCS pilot projects, claiming the world is trapped in the gap between rhetoric and actual technological progress.
"A large gap has emerged between the political discourse surrounding the promise of the technology and the scale of technological learning that still must occur before the technology can contribute to meaningful carbon dioxide reductions," the report stated.
The researchers called on the world to ramp up public funding for utility-scale projects. Without it, the study suggested, a Post-Kyoto climate treaty negotiations would be severely hampered.
"CCS is the only technology that reduces carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, while coal is at present the predominant fuel for electricity and responsible for no less than 40% of global CO2 emissions. About 100 GW of additional coal-fired power capacity is currently built every year, and the use of coal is projected to increase in the decades to come (IEA, 2008).
It has been suggested that confidence in CCS could be a pre-requisite for a global agreement on large-scale CO2 emissions reductions," the authors write.
NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen has called CCS one of "the best candidates to provide large baseload nearly carbon-free power," with the caveat of "in case renewable energies cannot do the entire job." In a December letter to then President-elect Obama, he called for urgent financial support:
"Because of the enormous number of dirty coal-fired power plants in existence, the abundance of the fuel, and the fact that CCS technology could be used at biofuel-fired power plants to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide, the technology deserves strong R&D support," Hansen wrote.
CCS works by stripping carbon from exhaust gases from power plants, piping them away and burying them underground. As the Harvard report explained, it is not a single technology that makes it work but "sets of technological components associated with capturing, transporting and storing CO2 deep underground." The technological maturity of its many components varies. And:
"Only in oxyfuel combustion has there been significant recent progress with the opening of a CO2 capture demonstration plant with aquifer storage near Berlin, Germany (and concrete plans to expand the 30 MW plant to 300 MW)."
The technological risks are plenty, turning off private investors, and they only enhance the "significant cost barrier" of bringing the capital-intensive demo plants online, said the authors.
The Belfer Center is the same institution that released the July 2009 blockbuster report, "Realistic Costs of Carbon Capture," That study found that first-generation CCS plants could double the costs of electricity in the U.S., up from the national average of 9 cents per kWh to 20 cents per kWh. Further, it would cost a staggering $120 to $180 for every ton of C02 the retrofitted plants capture and store.
Of course, those costs are expected to plummet, if and when the technology matures, to between $30 and $50 per ton of CO2 that is captured.
The West Virginia pilot plant may be a start in the direction of technological improvement, but it's a tiny one given the gargantuan task at hand.
Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, put the CCS challenge in perspective in a 2006 report produced for the OECD.
In it, he made the case that sequestering a mere 10 percent of global CO2 emissions would require moving, and then forcing underground, an amount of compressed gas that would add up to more than all of the crude oil currently extracted globally. And that's "by a petroleum industry whose infrastructure and capacities have been put in place over a century of development."
"Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation," Smil said.