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Keeping Coal as a Viable Power Source for Electrical Power Generation and Industry

written by: Mike Aguilar•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 10/28/2011

Coal-fired power generating facilities spew vast quantities of the greenhouse gas CO2 into our atmosphere. However, there is a technology that could allow these facilities to keep operating, but it could also possibly have as much of an impact on greenhouse gas emissions as renewable technologies.

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    Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technology (CCS) is the process by which carbon dioxide is captured from the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in the production of electrical energy and stored in a way that it is less able to escape into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Usually, this sequestration is carried out in the geologic strata of the planet, i.e. deep underground.

    The technology has the capability to decrease the carbon dioxide output of carbon burning plants drastically, in many cases down to around 450 parts per million. Environmental scientists and ecologists hail the technology as making the use of fossil fuel feasible without continuing its serious impact on our environment. Of course, since there is a cost involved with implementing this technology, industry, by and large, opposes it, except in some specific, certain circumstances. Otherwise, it cuts into their profit margins by requiring both an initial and an ongoing investment to work.

    In this article we'll look at the state of this technology and present both sides of the argument, before making our conclusions.

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    The Technology: What It Entails, What It Could Mean

    The basic concept of CCS is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. As a fossil fuel like coal (the fuel source it is normally going to be used with) burns, it produces carbon dioxide due to the high carbon content of the fuel. Flue gases from the combustion are routed through a carbon scrubber/capture device. From the capture device, the carbon dioxide is piped (or transported) to a compression and storage system. It can either then be injected deep underground at the generation site, or it can be sent to a separate site specifically set up for the purpose of storing the carbon dioxide deep in geological strata.

    Abandoned oil and natural gas wells have been considered prime long term storage locations. Storage locations optimally will be a minimum of a mile and a half below the Earth’s surface.

    Estimates are that CCS technology can trap and remove up to ninety percent of the carbon dioxide from a small- to medium-sized (around 200-250 Megawatts) coal-fired power generation facility. What this means is that a power plant burning “cleaner coal" can be as clean, or cleaner, than a natural gas-fired power plant while producing the same amount of power.

    So, what does CCS technology promise, both for the country and the planet? As an example, over the past half century or so, China has used more coal to produce power than the US. Some say that there is so much pollution in the air from this that you can see and taste the air you breathe in major Chinese cities. Acid rain is also a fairly regular occurrence, especially in the more industrially developed portions of the country.

    Carbon capture and sequestration technology, especially when coupled with coal that has been engineered to burn more cleanly, would mean that they (and we) can maintain our current coal-fired plants and still greatly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. With up to ninety percent of the CO2 being removed from the flue stream, those cost-effective plants already in use could be maintained and their lifecycle greatly increased, while still maintaining regulatory compliance. This means that expensive conversions to gas-fired energy production (or dual-fired plants) won't be necessary.

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    Carbon Sequestration: Another Expensive, Useless Regulation?

    Currently, no EPA regulation requires carbon capture and sequestration, or storage of carbon dioxide at fossil fuel burning facilities.

    However, the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) has previously partnered with power generation giant American Electric Power (AEP) to install carbon capture technology at AEP’s Mountaineer power generation facility. Starting in 2009, this partnership was established as part of the Clean Coal Power Initiative. This partnership was established to test the efficacy of the technology, processing 18% of the total flue gas slipstream, equivalent to 235 MW of generating power. This testing program would have been removing the equivalent of 1.5 Million metric tons of carbon from the slipstream per year.

    This program promised AEP up to $334 million (in phases) to install a carbon capture and compression system at the Mountaineer plant. If AEP hadn’t recently pulled out of the partnership, the carbon dioxide would then have been chilled (by ammonia cooling), compressed, and injected into nearby geologic formations for long term storage. (The location is adjacent to several coal mines in various stages of working.)

    AEP cited “regulatory uncertainty" as the reason for this pullout. The company readily admits that carbon capture and sequestration technology is vital if the industry is to be able to stay in business without having to retire all coal-fired power generation facilities. But at the same time, they claim there is too much instability and volatility in the regulating environment. The technology requires commercialization, and since there are no standardized federal regulations regarding the reduction of greenhouse gases, they have no way to regain their share of the costs involved in validating and deploying the technology.

    In other words, without EPA regulations mandating the carbon capture and storage, they can’t raise the rates of utility customers. So because they can’t legally raise their rates, they decided to quit the partnership, but only after accepting $16 MILLION dollars from the U.S. taxpayers to pay for the first phase of the program, which included design, engineering and environmental impact reporting.

    However, AEP and Alstom, which provides the chilled ammonia process for extracting the carbon, self-funded a smaller trial at the Mountaineer facility, on a 20MW scale, that validated the technology. They successfully captured ninety percent of the carbon in the flue gas and safely sequestered it underground.

    The technology is proven.

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    Environmental and Human Consciousness/Awareness versus Pure Profit Motive

    The industry is putting profits ahead of environmental awareness, as well as the health of the people in the areas surrounding power generating stations that use coal.

    They’ve said that they can’t consider installation and use of the technology until there are regulations requiring it. Once regulations requiring the technology are put in place, they can legally increase their rates to make their consumers foot the bill. In a way, it makes sense, but in others, it makes no sense. Why should they pay for something that they don’t have to? There's a number of non-altruistic reasons. Separating the carbon out of hydrocarbons puts water vapor into the atmosphere instead of harmful carbon dioxide. Agricultural fields do better with water (rain or groundwater) that isn’t contaminated by coal-generated pollutants. Less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means fewer greenhouse gases to trap heat on the planet.

    But then again, if the power being generated is less damaging to our health and the health of our planet, won’t more people use more of it? Wouldn’t increased usage generate more income? Wouldn’t this increased income be able to pay for the installation of the CCS systems? And after those are paid for, wouldn’t it be net profit? Doesn’t this mean that it makes more sense in the long run to install the technology, even though the short run net profit would be decreased?

    The World Coal Association and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change call CCS technology a critical technology for stabiThe Contribution of Technologies to Achieve a Global Reduction in Emissions of 50% by 2050 Source: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2008 lizing greenhouse gases in an efficient and cost-effective manner. In fact, some sources say that CCS technology can contribute more towards the reduction of carbon emissions than renewables technologies. (See the attached graph from the World Coal Association.) Also, a recent allocation of $3.4 Billion by the US government to CCS technology can help defray some of the upfront costs, as long as the industry is willing to help shoulder some of the burden. So, considering all of these facts, why isn’t the industry doing more to decrease their carbon output?

    I invite your comments and opinions.