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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Death of Carbon Capture?

Air Date: Week of

The first carbon capture and storage project at a US power plant just ended. The pilot program in West Virginia proved the process could capture 90% of a power plant’s CO2 emissions. Host Bruce Gellerman asks American Electric Power CEO Mike Morris why they pulled the plug on the success. And Steve Holton, the business director of environmental systems development at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries explains why that company is beginning its own ambitious carbon capture program.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. More than half the electricity generated in the United States comes from burning cheap, abundant, but dirty coal. That’s why so called “clean coal” is the holy grail for utilities, and why some companies have been building demonstration plants to show carbon can be stripped from smokestacks and pumped deep underground. Two years ago we did a story about an ambitious carbon capture and storage project just getting underway at the Mountaineer plant in West Virginia. It's owned by American Electric Power - we spoke with CEO Mike Morris.

The Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia proved the concept of burning coal and emitting almost no CO2. (FlickrCC/ By americaspower)

MORRIS: The whole concept of being able to duplicate this technology and install it elsewhere is part of what we’re doing. Once it’s demonstrated, others will come flying to the technology and that’s my point. It is not inexpensive. But it is doable. And society - American society – needs to decide that’s the way they want to go.

GELLERMAN: Well, that was then. Today, the 100 million dollar experimental plant is finished and operators have demonstrated it can remove 90 percent of the plant’s CO2 emissions. But this past week CEO Mike Morris announced American Electric Power isn’t going ahead with full-scale carbon capture and storage. So we called him up.

MORRIS: We're really quite satisfied with what we've done and quite honestly a bit disappointed that we've not been able to take it to scale.

GELLERMAN: Well, why not? You’ve pulled the plug on the experiment?

MORRIS: Well, as you know, we are a regulated utility. And we are not allowed to simply invest money on behalf of our customers and recover those costs from them under the regulatory contract. There is the impact of running this machine, which we were always targeting at 10 to 15 percent what’s called a parasitic impact, meaning that you lose about 10 or 15 percent of the kilowatt hours you could put on the system by running the machines that capture and store the carbon. If that power plant makes the energy at five cents, it might make it at seven cents with this technology.

GELLERMAN: So you can generate clean coal electricity, the question is at what cost?

MORRIS: I think that’s a fair statement, but as I said in our last conversation, society needed to decide whether that was the way they truly wanted to go. We were strong proponents of Waxman-Markey in the House, but we just couldn’t get it over the finish line, and I doubt that we will in a long, long while.

GELLERMAN: So you were in favor of cap and trade, it would have made this thing possible!

MORRIS: We were indeed. But it has zero opportunity of moving forward, but it still is a great concept because it sets the standard for economic creativity, engineering creativity and a means by which one could go forward and handle the carbon issue by buying credits and trading for credits. But it wasn’t the will of the elected officials of this country, and therefore, as a regulated utility, we simply are not able to go forward and scale this project up.

GELLERMAN: But even if electricity that was generated by coal, where there was carbon capture and storage, even if it was 15 percent, you’d still be cheaper than just about any other power source, right?

MORRIS: Clearly cheaper than new nuclear, clearly cheaper than sun and wind. Other than the new potentiality available shale natural gas combined cycle units, that’s true.

GELLERMAN: Mike Morris is CEO of American Electric Power. Well, their pilot plant is just one of about 20 carbon capture projects in the works worldwide. Another is at Plant Barry in Alabama. It uses technology developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Steven Holton is the company's Director of Environmental Systems Development.

HOLTON: We started up the process at the beginning of June and so we’re in the period of sort of shake down and getting the system stable. But we are doing very well, we’re capturing 90 percent of the CO2 in the flue gas which amounts to five hundred tons per day, up to about 150 thousand tons a year. We’re not currently compressing it, but we are doing a capture and release while we set up and stabilize the system.

GELLERMAN: Boy, you can capture 90 percent. So what you’re proving is that you can get the CO2 out of the flue, but then you’re just letting it go because you haven’t put it into the ground.

HOLTON: Correct. Currently, as I said, what we call catch and release - so we’re capturing the CO2 and then putting it back up the stack, releasing it to the atmosphere, while we wait for the pipeline company to finish the pipeline. I believe that the pipeline should be completed October/November time. So we’re currently testing the compression portion of our process, and then once the pipeline is completed, it will be transported for injection.

GELLERMAN: Now the process that Mitsubishi is using at the Plant Barry in Alabama is different than the one that was being used at the Mountaineer Plant in West Virginia that they just discontinued.

HOLTON: Yes it is. We use a solvent. And that differs from the chilled ammonia process, which were what Mountaineer were looking at. The solvent absorbs the CO2 from the flue gas, and then we pump that rich solvent to a stripper vessel where we use steam to separate the CO2 from the solvent, and then we take that gas and we compress it. Then it becomes sort of a semi-liquid phase, and then it goes down the pipeline, correct.

GELLERMAN: Well, the big question is: Can you do it at a low enough cost that it’s not going to drive up the price of coal?

HOLTON: Well, it will affect the price of electricity at the end of the day. It’s the energy penalty that’s tough to get below a certain point. We’re getting to the laws of physics that we can’t go any lower. But currently, we can get that energy penalty down to around 17 to 20 percent.

GELLERMAN: Which means that you pay about 17 to 20 percent more for electricity produced by burning coal?

HOLTON: Well, we’re all waiting for regulation that will drive our market. And once we have our market, and we have that competition there, the expectation is that those costs will go down.

GELLERMAN: When you say that you’re waiting for regulation, does that mean that you’re waiting for a cap on carbon so that it would be economically viable to have this process?

HOLTON: Yes. Until the government regulates the emissions of CO2, puts some either cap and trade or tax benefits or program in place, then we’re not going to see anyone capturing CO2, because it is expensive. It will have an affect to the consumer and there will be an increase on the cost of electricity. Once we’re in a commercial position and it is regulated and people are forced to do this that will drive the cost of the carbon capture down because of competition and economies of scale, etcetera.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Holton, thank you very much, I do appreciate it.

HOLTON: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure to talk to you.

GELLERMAN: Steve Holton the Director of Environmental Systems Development at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.



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