American Electric Power may have changed its mind about the future of the coal-fired Big Sandy Power Plant in Eastern Kentucky. The company has an application pending with the Kentucky Public Service Commission to install pollution controls at the plant to continue burning coal. But WFPL has learned that AEP filed to withdraw the application today.
Now, instead of moving ahead with the retrofit of the Big Sandy plant, the company plans to re-evaluate alternatives to comply with upcoming air pollution standards.
Spokesman Ronn Robinson said the company made the decision to reconsider alternatives to coal because outlooks suggest more energy capacity in the market in the next few years. “We will look at everything again,” he said. “We will look at the continued use of coal, the scrubber may stay an option, we will look at gas, we will do a total review, in light of the new energy landscape to make the decision that’s in the best interest of our customers and ratepayers.”
Earthjustice attorney Shannon Fisk represented environmental groups that intervened in the case, arguing that it would be more cost-effective to replace the plant’s capacity with a mix of other natural gas, renewable energy and efficiency measures.
Fisk called AEP’s application withdrawal a victory for both the environment and ratepayers, and said it’s a move that he hopes will be noticed around the country.
“It’s clearly not economic to retrofit this coal plant in the heart of coal country,” he said. “And that really sends a message for coal plants throughout the country, if it’s not even economic to do it in Kentucky, it’s certainly not economic to be spending hundreds of millions, even a billion dollars on aging coal infrastructure like Ohio and Michigan and Tennessee.”
Two environmental groups are contesting an application filed with the Public Service Commission by an eastern Kentucky power company. They say retrofitting the Big Sandy power plant to continue burning coal will be more expensive than the company reported.
In December, Kentucky Power filed an application with the Public Service Commission to spend $940 million retrofitting the Big Sandy Power Plant in Lawrence County. The plant burns coal, and the company—which is owned by American Electric Power—is asking for PSC approval to install pollution controls and continue burning coal.
But the new filings in the case by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice argue that the company low-balled the estimated cost, and that the plant retrofit isn’t the most cost-effective option. Lauren McGrath of the Sierra Club’s Kentucky chapter says the group hired consulting firm Synapse Energy to analyze AEP’s proposal.
The Environmental Protection Agency says injecting carbon dioxide underground doesn’t pose substantial environmental or health risks. The agency is proposing a rule to classify carbon dioxide as a non-hazardous waste and encourage a controversial coal technology.
Carbon capture and sequestration—or CCS—is a process where carbon dioxide is removed from the emissions of coal-fired power plants and injected deep underground. It’s not widely used because it’s not yet economical.
In an effort to encourage the industry, the EPA now says carbon dioxide is excluded from hazardous waste regulations, under certain conditions.
Government and industry officials see the technology as a way to prolong the use of coal in a world that’s increasingly worried about the effects of climate change. Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club says his organization supports new energy technology, but doesn’t believe carbon capture is a long-term solution.
“In many regards, the efforts to try to work out the viability of carbon capture and storage distracts us from the real opportunity at hand, which is to invest in clean energy that’s available today that creates many more jobs than are in the coal industry,” he said.
The first CCS project to both capture and sequester its own carbon was at an American Electric Power plant in West Virginia. That effort was halted last month, and a spokeswoman said the decision was financial and the EPA’s proposed rule wouldn’t have provided enough impetus to keep the project alive.
For the past few years, American Electric Power has been working on a carbon capture and sequestration project at their Mountaineer Power Plant in New Haven, West Virginia. The plant used a chilled ammonia process to remove the carbon dioxide from the gas emitted from the plant, then the carbon was injected underground for storage in porous rock. Here’s a documentary I produced while at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which describes the technology at Mountaineer.
But AEP’s project at Mountaineer was very small scale–it removed about 1.5 percent of the carbon from the plant’s emissions. But now, AEP has announced that it will be halting the project. The news was broken in The New York Times this morning.
(Part two of a two-part series on carbon capture and storage. Listen to part one here.)
This October, American Electric Power’s Mountaineer coal plant in West Virginia became the first to demonstrate it could capture carbon dioxide from the smoke stack and pipe it underground for storage. It’s only capturing a fraction of the 9 and a half million tons of CO2 the plant emits every year, and engineers are still fine-tuning the process. But project manager Brian Sherrick says what they learn from carbon capture and storage, or CCS, will still put the company ahead of the industry when congress passes climate change legislation.
“We think it’s imminent. One of our main goals, overall goals, is to maintain coal as an affordable, reliable, and clean source of electricity. It’s an abundant resource in the United States. There isn’t one silver bullet to address global climate change. CCS we believe will be part of the solution,” Sherrick says.
“This is not about making coal clean, as some people have claimed,” says Natural Resources Defense Council scientist George Peridas. “Coal mining is ravaging communities in many areas of the country.”
Not everyone would agree with Peridas on that last point, but most industry and environmental groups agree on this: “A few hundred power plants, coal plants are operating around the country, and they’re producing large amounts of global warming pollution, and this is where the carbon capture and storage technology comes in.”
The US Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030, 90 percent of the nation’s CO2 emissions will come from power plants that already exist. Pittsburgh-based National Energy Technology Lab manager Jared Ciferno says scientists know how to capture the carbon from that power plant flue gas. And they know how to store it underground. But they don’t know how to do both on the scale an existing power plant needs. Ciferno is helping developm of some of the most promising methods.
“First and foremost, we need to scale up, whether they’re existing technologies or advanced ones, as well as they were not optimized for the power sector,” says Ciferno.
This Fall, the US Department of Energy invested $55 million dollars for laboratory or pilot-ready technologies. Ciferno says the engineering hurdle will be testing those technologies in the real world.
“The majority of them are still on a relatively small scale, being developed in a laboratory scale. We’re in the process now of looking at systems. What kind of system does it need to be cost effective?”
Ciferno says the system basically has to include some kind of chemical that attracts and bonds with carbon dioxide molecules well enough to pull them out of the smoke stack gas, but not so well that the co2 molecules can’t later be plucked off and sent packing. Getting that chemical reaction to be more efficient is the major problem scientists at several of the national labs are trying to solve right now. But once we capture all that CO2, do we have—say, in the Ohio River Valley—safe places to put it?
“In much of Illinois, Indiana, northern Kentucky, the Mount Simon sandstone is the real focus of much of the geologic storage capacity,” says Dave Harris, with the Kentucky Geological Survey.
That layer of sandstone is many thousands of feet below the surface. And Harris says it’s porous enough to be a pretty good sponge for CO2—which would be compressed into a dense liquid and shot down a well. In Kentucky, industry and university partners have collaborated on two carbon storage test wells. One’s in Hancock, the other in Boone County. And they’re working.
“That certainly doesn’t give a green light for sequestration across the state. We certainly need a lot more data points. But the results of these two tests are certainly favorable in that we were able to inject CO2 at rates approaching what would be needed on a commercial scale,” says Harris.
Harris says there are more potential storage sites throughout the region, too. But scientists need to test and monitor them. While they do, it could still be decades before carbon capture and storage technologies are ready for use on a wide scale. And by then, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models show us that carbon in our atmosphere will likely already have warmed the planet by several degrees.
(Part one of a two-part series. Listen to part two here.)
Welcome to the guts of the world’s largest coal-fired power plant. The gigantic boiler inside American Electric Power’s Mountaineer plant in West Virginia incinerates up to 12 thousand tons of coal every day. It generates enough power to juice up 200 New Havens—the plant’s hometown on the Ohio River. It also sends more than 9 and a half million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. But that’s about to change.
Project manager Brian Sherrick leads a group past the boiler and up onto the roof, to point out some new equipment on a smokestack.
“You look down the stack, you see duct work, going into the side of the stack. On the far side of the absorber outlet hood, you see two white pieces of duct work,” says Sherrick
Sherrick is describing the plant’s brand new system of pipes and tanks designed to cull the global warming gas before it goes up the stack.
“That’s the inlet and outlet duct work for the CO2 capture process.”
“So this is where the CO2 as a fluid will get transported over to the booster pump for injection into the two injection wells. So all this capture process on the back end comes down to this four-inch CO2 pipe,” Sherrick says.
That process is the chilled ammonia method, developed by French company Allstom. AEP keeps the details secret, but basically they’ve fine-tuned a way to say a chemical “come hither” to the CO2 before it hits the stacks, coax it into this new structure, compress it, and shoot it into a deep underground reservoir of salt water and sponge-y rock for good. What makes it different is the amount of energy it takes to do. Plant managers call it “parasitic load.” Other methods can take nearly 30 percent of a plant’s power. But Sherrick says this takes less.
“The goal of Allstom’s chilled ammonia process is to get somewhere down to 10 to 15 percent. Also, as you scale up the technology, you’ll have some efficiencies that you gain because you’ll be able to use the same size pump or motor as you did here.”
AEP is betting more than 70 million dollars on the process, along with partner investors. Other industry leaders, like E.on vice president John Voyles, aren’t convinced the technologies are ready to deploy yet.
“It will take 25 to 30 percent of the output from any particular unit just to run that equipment. And obviously all of the electric generators that are installed and running today are there to serve customers’ needs. So, there will be a cost to install that equipment that certainly will impact customer bills and rates,” says Voyles.
And a cost to replace the electric generation that goes into capturing the carbon dioxide. Which could mean using more coal. It’s a conundrum. Voyles says E.on has invested in carbon capture and sequestration research. And he believes legislation requiring carbon reductions is inevitable. But it may be sooner than we think. For the first time in many years, both lawmakers and regulation writers are tackling plans to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency just finalized a rule that will require power plants to report theirs. And two versions of a climate bill requiring serious reductions are wending their way through the halls of congress. If something passes, more power plant operators may have to come to terms with a technology that’s still young and expensive.
Next in the series, Kristin looks into the future–with all its technical and economic uncertainties—of carbon capture and storage.