Dig the coal, bury the carbon
New coal-fired power plants will capture CO2 and inject it into the earth.
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When it opens, the plant should be the cleanest coal power plant in the nation, company officials say. More important, if it receives state approval as expected, the plant will, as early as 2013, also begin capturing up to 1 million tons of its own CO2 annually and pumping it underground.Skip to next paragraph
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“Whether we’re producing steel or generating electricity, it’s all heavily carbon intensive,” says David Pippen, policy director for energy, environment, and natural resources for the governor of Indiana. “We feel that for some time to come, our nation is going to produce CO2. So, to the extent we in Indiana can sequester it, we want to be part of the solution.”
But not everyone is persuaded that CCS is necessary or safe. In a study last year, the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace declared CCS “unproven, risky, and expensive.” Leakage of just 1 percent of CO2 from storage would undermine greenhouse-gas reduction programs. Renewable-energy development might suffer, and CCS could raise concerns about human health, ecosystem damage, and groundwater contamination.
The Natural Resources Defense Council applauded the House of Representatives’ passage of a climate-energy bill that contained billions for CCS, but others say that the spending was a sop to win coal-state votes – and poor environmental policy.
Energy efficiency; wind, solar, and geothermal power; and a more efficient power grid can meet US and global energy needs, according to Friends of the Earth in Washington. Opposed to the climate-energy bill and to CCS, the group favors a moratorium on new coal-fuel power plants.
“Instead of developing CCS capability, we should move away from coal altogether,” says Nick Berning, a Friends of the Earth spokesman. “Even if [cost and liability] concerns were overcome, you would still have the problem that coal mining and mountaintop removal is an inherently dirty process. We don’t need it.”
Needed: a retrofit breakthrough for coal power plants
Building new coal power plants that capture and sequester their own greenhouse gases would not by itself capture enough CO2 to cool the planet, a new report says.
Still to be invented is a cost-effective carbon-dioxide-capture technology that can be retrofitted to existing conventional coal power plants, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study says.
There is no credible pathway toward prudent greenhouse gas stabilization targets without CO2 emissions reduction from existing coal power plants,” said Ernest Moniz, director of MIT’s Energy Initiative program in a statement. “These coal plants are going to continue to operate for decades....”
Fewer than half of existing coal-fired plants are large enough or new enough to justify such a retrofit using current CO2 capture technologies. Even if retrofits are affordable, applying them creates a dilemma: The technology gobbles up much of the power plant’s capacity, so extra power is needed from – where? Another coal-fired plant? Renewable energy?
Nationwide, about 320 coal-fired generating units could use such retrofits, according to Ventyx and E3 Consulting, two power industry consulting firms. That would cut 55 gigawatts of generating capacity – a one-sixth drop in the nation’s 310 gigawatts of capacity from coal.
Kevin Book, managing director for Clearview Energy Partners, puts it this way: “The breakthrough we don’t have yet is an affordable retrofit technology. We had better invent something soon.”