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Dig the coal, bury the carbon

New coal-fired power plants will capture CO2 and inject it into the earth.

(Page 2 of 3)

Also important: climate-change legislation under consideration in Congress that could, Mr. Book says, pump some $75 billion into CCS development over the next 25 years.

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But Midwestern states are not waiting on Washington. In Ken­tucky, plans are moving ahead for a coal-gasification pow­er plant. In Illinois, a consortium of businesses is racing to develop the high-profile FutureGen coal-power project, which could capture from 60 to 90 percent of its emissions and pump them underground.

In January, Illinois adopted a “clean coal portfolio” law that requires state utilities by 2015 to get 5 percent of their electricity from power plants that capture CO2 emissions and store them permanently underground. It also sets a goal of 25 percent “clean coal” by 2025.

But first, researchers such as Sallie Greenberg, an environmental geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, need to prove that the geology can hold CO2 under pressure in perpetuity.

She’s standing here in what was a Decatur, Ill., farm field, on a mud-and-gravel platform where a massive steel cap sits atop what could be the nation’s first commercial-scale CO2 injection well.

In April, researchers will begin pumping 1,000 tons of CO2 a day more than 6,000 feet into a porous sandstone layer far below aquifers that provide drinking water. That layer, known as the Mount Simon, should hold the CO2 for eons beneath a 300-foot shale cap, she says.

“We will monitor this site for at least three years and know in some detail whether or not CO2 is escaping,” she says. “But we think the geology shows a high likelihood the CO2 will stay down.”

Similar tests have been conducted elsewhere. But only pumping much larger amounts of CO2 will prove whether it will stay put. Initially that CO2 will come from a nearby Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plant. By sequestering about 1 million tons of CO2 from ethanol over three years, the project will show if the same could be done for power projects – or any CO2-intensive industry, says Rob Finley, director of the Illinois State Geological Survey Center for Energy and Earth Resources.

Success here could mean a boon for CO2 sequestration from ethanol, cement, and manufacturing plants. It could also support an expansion in mining Illinois’s high-sulfur coal – if carbon dioxide and other pollutants, like sulfur, can be removed inexpensively, says Warren Ribley, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

There are other options for using the captured CO2: Plans are afoot to run a pipeline from Illinois to Mississippi, where CO2 could be pumped underground to extract oil remaining in depleted fields.

All of this hinges on capture technology, which accounts for three-quarters of the cost of CCS today. The leading technology is integrated gasification and combined cycle (IGCC), which adds 20 percent to the cost of building a new power plant but lowers the cost of removing carbon dioxide from the plant’s exhaust.

Here in Edwardsport, in a quarter-mile-wide bowl of mud, cranes, and concrete, workers are bolting together the world’s first large-scale commercial IGCC power plant. On track to begin generating by 2012, the new $2.3 billion plant – being built by Duke Energy with $460 million in local, state, and federal tax incentives – is being watched closely by lawmakers, environmentalists, and the energy industry.