Tackling Climate Change
Can we capture carbon?
by Jennifer Taylor
While electric cooperatives lead the utility industry in implementing energy-efficiency programs and supplying power from renewable energy, they also are on the cutting edge when it comes to testing and deploying carbon capture and storage technology (CCS). Carbon capture and storage remains a sophisticated, complex process that involves isolating carbon dioxide from other power plant emissions. The collected gas is then compressed, pumped down into spent oil and natural gas wells, saline reservoirs or coal seams and, in theory, entombed forever.
As electric utilities strive to meet increasing demand for safe, reliable, and affordable electricity in an environmentally responsible fashion, CCS stands, according to a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology report, “as the critical enabling technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly.” Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas blamed for contributing to climate change, is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, are burned to produce electricity.
A 2007 study released by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), found that U.S. electric utilities can help the nation cut carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2030 by taking aggressive steps in seven principal areas. The most significant reductions, EPRI notes, will come from CCS technologies. “But much work still needs to be done on CCS,” emphasizes George Offen, EPRI senior technical executive.
EPRI points out that building advanced, more efficient coal-fired plants with carbon capture and storage technology will boost capital construction costs by around 40 percent, while the cost for retrofitting existing plants, if possible at all, could run 60 to 80 percent of a new facility.
Moreover, we have to solve the problem of ultimately storing carbon dioxide. “Storing carbon dioxide in a variety of geological formations is something we do not understand. We have to do more research to determine whether it’s even feasible and then address all of the other issues — the policy and regulatory concerns — that go along with it,” says Clark Gellings, vice president of technology at EPRI.
To date, no coal-fired power plants are equipped with CCS technology. And just three plants worldwide remove carbon dioxide from natural gas production and store it underground. Out of these three, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, operated by Basin Electric Power Cooperative — a Bismarck, N.D.-based generation and transmission (G&T) co-op — starts the process with coal, which is turned into a synthetic natural gas.
Every day, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant sends 8,700 tons of captured, compressed carbon dioxide via a 205-mile-long pipeline buried four feet underground to depleted oil fields in Canada, where the gas helps bring more oil to the surface. Over the years, more than 10 million tons of carbon dioxide have been captured and shipped in this manner.
Additionally, Basin Electric has recently selected a developer to launch a CCS demonstration project at its coal-fired Antelope Valley Station. Transferring this technology to a large-scale, existing coal-fired power plant has never been done.
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative, a G&T based in Benson, Ariz., will participate with three other utilities in the $4 million Arizona Utilities Carbon Dioxide Storage Pilot Project.
If electric utilities are to implement CCS on a commercial scale, major projects with coal-fired plants need to begin soon. They are not going to come easy or cheap. Government funding akin to the Apollo moon program will be needed for research and development.
“Carbon sequestration is very expensive,” stresses Tom Lovas, CRN senior program manager.
NRECA CEO Glenn English argues that Congress needs to invest in new technologies required for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“Electric co-op consumers are conscious that there is a price to pay for addressing climate change,” he concludes. “If Congress is serious about meeting our nation’s energy challenges, then it needs to move forward in providing the funding needed to create sustainable, long-term solutions based on new technology.”
Jennifer Taylor writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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