The mythical elixir peddled by the coal industry to solve our climate woes, carbon capture and storage (CCS), may yet become a reality.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a report today saying that a massive CCS build-out will be necessary to keep carbon dioxide emissions in check, and it will have to happen quickly.
The next decade will be the "make a break" period, the IEA writes. To get CCS technology functional on a commercial scale, bring the costs down and put the technology on course to make a dent in global emissions, the report calls for 100 CCS projects globally by 2020 and more than 3,000 by 2050.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is also urging energy ministers around the world to accelerate their investment in CCS development. In a letter yesterday, he said the U.S. is on board and expects to have 10 demonstration CCS plants online by 2016.
"I believe we must make it our goal to advance carbon capture and storage technology to the point where widespread, affordable deployment can begin in eight to 10 years," Chu wrote.
"Success is within reach, but not guaranteed. it will not come easily. It will require an aggressive global effort, harnessing the scientific talent and resources of governments as well as industry."
None of this will be cheap, of course. Only four fully integrated, commercial-scale plants are operating today, and there are still big questions about safety.
Costs Run into the Trillions
CCS has been hyped as the future of coal for several years, but until recently it seemed like a distant prospect.
The Bush administration pulled the plug on what would have been its star demonstration project, FutureGen, after the estimated price for the CCS-equipped power plant shot up by 40 percent. This year, Chu revived the project, though the DOE still wants to see more corporate investment to pull it off.
The Energy Department has $1.4 billion to allocate for such projects from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Chu announced the first DOE grants for CCS projects last month – $21.6 million for 12 projects. The department also awarded $62 million to geologic studies of potentially suitable CCS sites and sequestration training programs.
But that U.S. investment is still just a drop in the bucket. The IEA estimates that the cost of a global CCS build-out would run $3.5 billion to $4 billion every year from 2010 to 2020 for work in developed countries, plus $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion in financing for CCS projects in developing countries. By 2050, the IEA sees the annual cost of CCS topping $350 billion.
According to the IEA, that level of investment is necessary for CCS to contribute just one-fifth of the needed emissions reductions to stabilize CO2 levels in the most cost-effective way — renewable energy, nuclear power, and the near-decarbonization of fossil fuel-based power generation will still be necessary for the rest.
Questions of Safety & Oversight
While CCS appears to be gaining political momentum, some major hurdles still must be addressed, and the question of safety tops the list.
The IEA report runs down a partial list of the unknowns:
"To date there has been very little site-specific storage exploration undertaken, and there is clear need for both regional and site-specific exploration to establish viable storage resources. Additional needs include:
* improved CO2 seismic modeling and monitoring techniques to enhance the ability to predict the fate of CO2 in the subsurface and verify its location;
* greater knowledge about understanding of leakage, including detection, rectifying and accounting;
* a better understanding of the impacts of CO2 storage on the subsurface, including on brine displacement;
* and more information about the effect of CO2 impurities on the storage formation.
* In addition, best practice guidelines are also needed for well construction and completion, remediation, and risk assessment."
Some of those challenges are surfacing for American Electric Power, the largest U.S. electricity producer, which recently announced that its 1,300-MW Mountaineer Plant in New Haven, W.Va., was set to begin pumping a tiny fraction of its carbon dioxide emissions into the ground.
The Mountaineer Plant intends to capture approximately 1.5% of its yearly carbon dioxide emissions and inject them into the Mt. Simon Sandstone, a formation that extends across much of the Midwest. The risk assessment, conducted by Batelle Memorial Institute, includes sudden carbon dioxide releases due to natural or manmade seismic movement — in other words, earthquakes, pressure from injection or mining activity could result in major leaks.
One would expect that sites selected for CCS demonstration would go through rigorous permitting processes, but the EPA has yet to issue federal rules for geological sequestration of carbon dioxide. Until those are finalized, it has a set of recommendations for state and regional agencies use for permitting pilot sequestration projects.
In the absence of federal regulation, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) issued the permit to the Mountaineer Plant.
The facility is on the border between West Virginia and Ohio and would impact residents of both states. However, Elisa Young, a local activist and Ohio resident across the river from the Mountaineer facility, told SolveClimate that the WVDEP did not notify Ohio residents of the permitting process and failed to obtain waivers of all landowners within the estimated impact region.
"I drove down to the WVDEP's records room in Charleston, West Virginia, and spent the better part of a day reviewing the CCS site permit and maps. It showed a purple circle of the estimated impacted region and said they'd need waivers from all the landowners within that circle," Young said.
"After a month of sending letters and phone calls to the Ohio EPA, they drew the impacted circle smaller on the map and said we would not be impacted, and we would not be having any hearing."
Young goes on to explain that because of the sites location on the West Virginia side of the border, none of the three monitoring wells will track the movement of the underground carbon dioxide plume into Ohio.
Given the experimental nature of the facility, as the nation's first power plant operating with CCS technology, shouldn't the approval process be a little more rigorous than allowing AEP to redraw the impact zones on a map?
Concerns about carbon dioxide leakage are more than just doomsday worrying; they have validity.
The Norwegian Sleipner CCS project is the oldest sequestration project in the world, operating since 1996. Unexplained movement in the carbon dioxide plume may have been caused by a series of minor leaks. Furthermore, a study by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate reversed its classification of the formation from "able to store all European emissions for hundreds of years" to "not very suitable."
Where Does This Leave Us?
Although the coal industry has heavily pitched CCS to Congress and the public, doubts also remain as to the technical capacity to store so much carbon dioxide. The Mountaineer facility, hailed as the first CCS demonstration at a power plant, will only seek to store 1.5% of its total emissions.
Corporations aren't eager to sign on to more ambitious projects right now, unless governments are footing large portions of the bill. As British Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband wrote in Sunday's London Times:
"CCS has been around for a long time without the investment to reach industrial scale. Business alone will not make that investment and while it doesn't, it's the environment that pays the price."
So where does this leave us?
Taxpayers, through their federal and state governments, are committing billions of dollars to see if CCS will work; the first commercial CCS facility was approved before federal regulations are finalized; and scientists are still concerned about safety.