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Professor At MIT: Carbon Capture Can Salvage Coal

WHEELING–Power plants can meet the Obama administration’s goal of cutting carbon emissions without abandoning their use of coal, but the costs of carbon capture and storage technology may inhibit its potential.

Although full implementation of the administration’s Clean Power Plan remains on hold due to ongoing legal challenges, many electricity producers — including American Electric Power and FirstEnergy Corp. — are already curtailing their burning of coal in favor of new natural gas generators. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects 2016 to be the first full year natural gas generates more electricity than coal, with gas generation estimated at a record 3.8 million megawatts per day.

A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said natural gas generation makes carbon capture systems difficult to sell when the price has dropped so sharply in recent years.

“Low natural gas prices have made it easy to ostracize coal,” said Howard Herzog, senior research engineer in the Energy Initiative at MIT. “Nothing can compete with natural gas at this point.”

By 2019, 549 megawatts of natural gas-fired electricity are scheduled to come online at the planned $615 million Moundsville Power plant along W.Va. 2 in Marshall County. There are also similar plants slated for Columbiana and Carroll counties in Ohio, as well as preliminary plans for facilities in both Brooke and Harrison counties in West Virginia.

Burning natural gas instead of coal allows power producers to cut carbon emissions without adopting the new carbon capture technology. Herzog remains hopeful more companies will seek to use carbon capture and storage to give “coal country a fighting chance.”

“It is always cheaper to put the CO2 into the atmosphere,” he said. “However, the government is not going to let this continue. Coal plants with carbon capture and storage can be very competitive.” Herzog added.

Applications And Cost

Herzog said there is one commercial application of carbon capture and storage now in use: the 110-megawatt Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project in Saskatchewan, Canada. He said this plant cost a total of $1.3 billion to build.

“For a coal plant with carbon capture and storage, you are talking in the billions of dollars,” Herzog said.

Herzog said it typically costs anywhere from 6-8 cents per kilowatt hour to generate electricity from a coal-fired power plant. If the plant included a carbon capture and storage system, the cost would escalate to anywhere from 9-15 cents per kilowatt hour.

“It would raise your generation costs as much as 100 percent,” Herzog said of the technology. “That is why it is cost-prohibitive today.”

How It Works

Herzog said the carbon capture process basically calls for scrubbing the flue gas, which is the emission commonly referred to as “smoke” from the top of the stack at a power plant.

“You send the flue gas through a tower. The liquid in the towers separates the CO2 from the rest of the gas. The gas then goes out into the atmosphere. The CO2 then can be stored underground,” Herzog said. “The question is, if we really want to get all the CO2 out of our electric system, is this the best way to go?”

According to Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project company information, the plant successfully captured 62,361 tons of carbon dioxide in June. Since startup in October 2014, the facility has captured more than 951,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which would be roughly the equivalent of removing nearly 240,000 cars from the road.

“If CCS is being developed to reduce CO2 emissions, that only makes sense if someone is willing to pay to reduce their CO2 emissions,” Herzog said.

Prospects

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claims its Clean Power Plan will prevent at least 3,600 premature deaths; prevent 90,000 asthma attacks per year; and create up to $45 billion worth of “climate and health benefits” per year.

Earlier this month, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy reflected on proceeding with the plan in August 2015.

“The plan rests on a strong legal and technical foundation and is consistent with Supreme Court decisions, EPA’s statutory authority, and air pollution standards that have been put in place to tackle other pollution problems,” she said.

“I’m excited for what the future holds,” she continued. “At EPA, we remain ready to take advantage of smart and effective opportunities to safeguard public health and the environment for this generation and those that follow.”

Because the EPA seems resolute in enforcing the Clean Power Plan, Herzog said carbon capture and storage can help meet the mandates. However, he is not sure how far it will get because renewable energy sources — solar, wind and hydropower — have the advantage when Democrats control the White House.

“Renewables have fairly good political clout at this point to get subsidies,” Herzog said. “When those industries get subsidies, while fossil fuels get taxed and attacked, it is very difficult.

“Can we really run our country on just renewables? I don’t think so,” he added. “I prefer the federal government not pick the winners and losers, but let the free market decide the winners and losers.”

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