Monday, 8 March 2010

The Long Road: Carbon Capture and Storage

THE TECHNOLOGY: Carbon-capture technology pulls carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of coal and other fossil-fuel plants, pressurizes the gas and pumps it underground for permanent storage.

CURRENT STATUS: A handful of small-scale carbon-capture and storage pilot and demonstration projects are under way in the U.S. and elsewhere. In a test to capture CO2 from an operating power plant, American Electric Power Co. is running a pilot at its Mountaineer plant in West Virginia, collecting about 1.5% of the plant's CO2 emissions and storing them under the site. Other sites in Europe, Africa and Australia are investigating underground storage, but the Mountaineer project is the first to integrate capture and storage.

WHY IT'S GOING TO TAKE SO LONG: Technically, carbon capture has been shown effective in small, less expensive pilot projects. In capturing larger emissions streams, operators have to fine-tune the equipment and see how it works in different weather conditions and using different grades of coal. In the most-advanced test, at AEP's Mountaineer plant, this stage is expected to take at least a year.
Once that is done, the next stage is building and operating a commercial-scale demonstration plant. AEP recently received $334 million in federal stimulus funds for its planned 235-megawatt demonstration plant. Designing the facility can overlap with the current pilot, but construction of the plant is expected to take several years; the goal is to have it online by fall of 2015. It would then have to be operated for several years to test its reliability and efficiency. AEP expects that power-plant builders could begin offering commercial versions of the technology by 2020.
Ultimately, commercial adoption also will depend on whether Congress decides to impose a price on carbon and what that price is. Carbon capture is expensive—it could double the price of electricity from some existing coal plants, and cuts plant efficiency by about 30%. Most experts agree that it is going to take a carbon price of at least $50 a ton to make carbon capture economically feasible. — Michael Totty