Coal is against the ropes and gasping for air. And the industry’s most viable path forward is to look to technology. And that’s exactly what it is now doing, given that it has garnered bipartisan support for legislation that would finance new carbon capture projects through tax credits.
Coal, of course, is under immense stress given both the national and global efforts to cut carbon emissions, along with those tied sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and mercury. But advances in technology might possibly throw coal a lifeline. Carbon capture has the potential to either bury carbon underground or to use it to enhance oil recovery. To this end, a bill that would include a per-ton tax credit for all projects that capture carbon is now pending.
“Carbon capture and storage could further prevent up to 90 percent of a fossil plant’s carbon dioxide emissions by storing carbon underground. In many cases CCS can be paired with enhanced oil recovery,” write Jay Faison and Glenn Kellow, a philanthropist and the chief executive officer of Peabody Energy, respectively, in an op-ed for The Hill.
The two go on to say that advanced coal technologies have already delivered emissions cuts. There are current technologies to reduce pollutants tied to acid rain and smog and they are producing sound results, all of which were developed as part of earlier clean air laws. With carbon capture, pollution cuts could reach at least 90 percent, they write.
Meantime, they emphasize that coal is still practical, given that there are an estimated 110 years worth of coal reserves worldwide. It is inexpensive relative to other fuels. And the two factors taken together could help a billion people who are without power have access to electricity and some lifestyle necessities.
Power companies contribute a third of all carbon emissions in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service. Older coal-fired facilities — the biggest culprits — could be retrofitted so as to trap the carbon before it leaves the smokestack. But such remedies are considered less efficient than building modern coal gasification plants with carbon burial.
Those plants scrub the mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide before they would separate the remaining byproducts: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which could be used to power everything from cars to power plants.
Globally, 13 large-scale carbon capture and storage projects are in operation, says the Global CCS Institute, adding that nine more are under construction. Those 22 projects would capture about 40 million tons a year of carbon dioxide, it adds. Meantime, 14 more are in development. The power sector’s biggest such project went live at Boundary Dam in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada on October 2, 2014, it says.
“Without widespread deployment of carbon capture technologies, we will simply fail to meet global mid-century goals for mitigating carbon emissions from electric power generation and a wide range of industrial activities,” says a letter signed by multiple interest that include Occidental Petroleum, Arch Coal and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The letter was addressed to the House Ways and Means Committee asking for its support of this tax credit.
To be sure, carbon capture and storage is both expensive and unproven. And if it is used to enhance oil recovery, the complaint is that the process creates even more heat-trapping emissions than before.
Consider: The White House dropped FutureGen 2, a plant that would have gasified coal and captured the emissions and buried the carbon, citing the escalating costs and technological hoops. Meanwhile, American Electric Power stopped such a project it had planned to build in West Virginia.
Furthermore, researchers at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT have discovered that only a “small fraction” of the carbon dioxide solidifies and turns into rock after it is injected 7,000 feet below the earth’s surface. The rest, it adds, remains in a more “tenuous form.” If the carbon is stored in deep aquifers where large pockets of brine exist, then it can solidify. However, the team found that this solidification creates a wall that prevents the bulk of the carbon dioxide from reacting with the brine.
“If it turns into rock, it’s stable and will remain there permanently,” says Yossi Cohen, who along with Daniel Rothman, performed the research, in an MIT release. “However, if it stays in its gaseous or liquid phase, it remains mobile and it can possibly return back to the atmosphere.” The two attempted to model the chemical reactions that would occur after carbon dioxide is injected into a briny, rocky environment.
Despite the odds, the technology is the coal industry’s best hope. Southern Company is stepping up and is expected to complete its Kemper power plant in Mississippi at a cost of $5.6 billion, up from an initial estimate of $2.4 billion. The public will pay half. There, the coal will first be gasified before it is burned, allowing the carbon to be separated before it is used to enhance oil recovery that some experts say is a more realistic near-term possibility.
“Our best hope for the moment … is carbon capture, utilization and storage,” which takes the captured carbon and uses it for enhanced oil recovery, says Judi Greenwald, vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Carbon emissions may be falling in this country, given the change-out from coal-to-gas. But they are expected to rise in the developing nations that are trying to modernize their economies. And coal will remain a primary fuel source for them, even though they want to lessen their dependence on it. All that necessitates the development of advanced coal technologies using carbon capture tools.
Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.
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