The need to prove CCS is safe if it’s ever going to be viable

Until the EPA’s recent announcement that it would limit carbon emissions on all new power plants even as it tested the political waters for limiting emissions on existing plants, all had been fairly quiet about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. But the proposed emissions limits would effectively be the death knell of coal as a source of power generation, unless of course CCS technology could be proven safe, effective, and price competitive.

CCS requires carbon to be compressed, liquefied and pumped one to two kilometers underground. Exhausted oil and gas fields are likely candidates for CCS sequestration sites. But ensuring that the CO2 remains trapped and doesn’t leak is one important part of verifying CCS as a feasible technology.  Monitoring CCS repositories is very costly and limited right now.

A British team is working on using cosmic rays to help image CCS repositories to check if there is leakage. The cosmic bombardment of so-called muons, subatomic particles 200 times heavier than electrons, travels underground and sensors can be placed underground to image them. Their signature lets scientists know what’s underground, similar to how an x-ray works.

Bringing down the cost of CCS is a major hurdle in terms of making the technology viable for the fossil fuel industry. It’s also on a collision course with cheap natural gas. But who knows, if CCS really can be proven safe and cost-effective, it could allow the EPA to push emissions limits even further, perhaps even down the line asking natural gas power plants to sequester some of their emissions.

Inside the World’s Largest Carbon-Capture Test Facility

The largest test site in the world for trialing technologies that capture, recycle and store carbon emissions is the $1 billion, 350-MW Technology Centre Mongstad plant in Norway. The Norwegian government and a group of energy companies launched the site last year (behind schedule and over budget), but its ten times as big as the largest carbon capture pilots around the world.

Could Obama’s new regulations breathe life into carbon capture tech?

The New York Times has reported that on Friday the Obama Administration will announce that it is pressing ahead with stricter emissions limits on coal and natural gas power plants. Who are the winners and the losers?

Well the coal industry and coal rich states won’t be happy and Republicans are calling the moves Obama’s “war on coal.” 40 percent of carbon emissions come from power plants and most of that is from coal power plants.

The winners? Sadly, natural gas will win big since it’ll become the most reasonable, affordable and quick solution to moving away from coal. The limits on carbon emissions from coal plants are going to make it expensive to produce coal based power. The only way to meet the requirements is to sequester the carbon emissions coming from the plant. That’s expensive technology, one that the coal industry has very little know how in.

So one potential strange winner from this is all the cleantech VCs and startups that have developed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is already arguing that she doesn’t views CCS as an add on technology for existing coal plants, but rather as potentially applicable to new power plants. But I think the real surprise is just that anyone is talking about CSS tech.

Today in

Carbon capture and sequestration is the only way to make coal-fired power environmentally responsible, and yet we’re so far from getting there. Last week’s decision by utility AEP to cancel its plans to continue with the country’s first commercial-scale project to capture carbon from a working coal power plant gives an indication of just how little economic pressure exists on the utility industry to change its ways. AEP tells the world that without federal carbon legislation, it just can’t justify the project’s investment. Given how challenging it is just to capture coal smokestack carbon and pump it underground, perhaps there’s little surprise that actually doing something useful with captured carbon will be even further down the road. So says a report out from the UK-based Center for Low Carbon Futures, which finds that feeding captured carbon to algae or other plants for conversion into biofuel, or pumping it into alternative systems for manufacturing cement, plastics or other materials, will require many years of testing and refinement to reach commercial viability. Will the world’s carbon emitters and their regulators be willing to spend the time and money to make these lines of business worthwhile to investors?

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.

Today in Cleantech

Let us mourn the shelving of a national climate change strategy this morning. Word from Washington D.C. is that Carol Browner, President Barack Obama’s handpicked coordinator of energy and climate policy, will be stepping down from her post as soon as an “orderly transition” can be arranged for whoever takes over. As Grist magazine rightly points out, there’s not much Browner’s replacement will be able to do except suffer the slings and arrows of a concerted Republican and conservative attack on the Obama Administration’s entire energy and environmental platform. What share of the blame lies at Browner’s feet is hard to say — as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported in November, the administration’s climate change strategy failed to line up the needed support with its Congressional allies. Now, the Republican takeover of the House has doomed carbon or climate legislation for the next two years, and the EPA’s bid to regulate carbon emissions as a pollutant is facing opposition from the state of Texas and a host of business and industry groups. Perhaps individual states (like California) will take up the slack on policies to combat climate change? In an interesting side note, Reuters reports another nation where the provinces are pushing the central government to move faster on creating markets to combat climate change — China.

UK Stands By Green Energy Amid Big Budget Cuts

The UK government unveiled major spending cuts today, taking bites out of welfare benefits and other public programs while pledging to provide £2.2 billion pounds (about $3.5 billion USD) for renewable energy and carbon capture projects and preserving a feed-in tariff for solar power.