AEP to ditch carbon capture, clean coal plan

Utility American Electric Power plans to announce on Thursday that it will suspend its project to capture the carbon emissions, at a commercial scale, from a coal plant in West Virginia, reports the New York Times. While AEP has been capturing carbon from the coal plant on a pilot scale, the utility plans to ditch the full scale project ultimately because of the high cost of the technology, and the changed political landscape.

I was just wondering what had happened to all the plans for so-called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects, a technology which has long been deemed crucial to reach carbon emission reduction goals by scientists, but also a technology that has so far failed to reach commercial scale because of its very high cost. The idea behind the tech is to capture the carbon emissions at a coal plant, store that carbon somewhere, like deep underground, and enable coal plants to produce electricity without much of the dirty carbon emissions.

Two years ago, the Department of Energy pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in funds from the stimulus package for AEP to “design, construct and operate a chilled ammonia process”  at the coal plant. AEP planned to eventually, over a ten year construction process, pipe the captured and compressed CO2 over to two saline formations 1.5 miles underground. The total project was supposed to cost $668 million, reports the New York Times.

The move to cancel the plan shows just how far back the weak economy, and the changed political climate has pushed back capital intensive green technologies. AEP tells the New York Times that it didn’t think state regulators would approve rate hikes for customers to pay for the project. Adding the CCS technology can raise the price of the coal power by 50 percent, and the tech only becomes economical when the price of carbon reaches levels around $100 per ton.

AEP is the largest producer of coal-fired power in the U.S. and back in October 2009, AEP’s CEO Michael Morris called starting the process of capturing the carbon emissions from the plant: “the beginning of a technological road map.” The project was one of the largest in the U.S. Now it appears to be a dead-end. Now who’s taking bets on FutureGen?