American Electric Power’s Mountaineer plant in New Haven, West Virginia, on the Ohio River, is currently capturing and storing a tiny fraction–about 100,000 tons–of the carbon dioxide its 1300 megawatt plant produces, just to work the kinks out of the technology. A new $334 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will help the plant capture one point five million tons of the greenhouse gas, which it will store more than a mile underground. The funding comes from the DOE’s “Clean Coal Initiative,” and two other projects in Alabama and Texas will receive part of the $3 billion dollar pot.
(Note: See our previous story about Mountaineer’s carbon capture and storage project here.)
(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.
In an empty lot off Lower Hunters Trace road in Louisville, an excavator is deftly scooping away the gravel around a truck-sized tank lodged in the ground.
“We’ve got two underground storage tanks, typical two dispenser pump island. It was your typical convenience store that’s gone out of business.”
Rob Daniells mananges Kentucky’s Underground Storage Tank program. He’s overseeing the operation to clear this site of the previous owners’ gasoline storage tanks—the ones that stored the gas customers pumped into their cars—so that another business can use the property. But why not just leave them there, undisturbed, under the pavement?
“Any time you’ve got a tank system that’s been in the ground for 15, 20, 25 years, you always have the threat that that system may have leaked at some point during its lifespan,” says Daniells.
So while the excavator gently nudges aside more of the debris that’s trapping the tank, environmental consultant Mark Hopkins climbs into the pit to take soil samples.
“In this soil we’ll be testing for gasoline constituents: benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, some xylene,” says Hopkins.
If tests come back positive, that could mean trouble for groundwater. According to the Kentucky Division of Water, nearly two million Kentuckians rely on groundwater as a source for drinking water. Once these toxic chemicals have seeped into the ground or directly into a drinking water source, they can be tough to tease out. Rob Daniells says just containing such contamination is the bulk of the state removal program.
“ And that’s where things really get difficult obviously, because when gasoline or diesel constituents get into the groundwater table, it’s very, very difficult, it’s very time-consuming, and it’s very expensive to try to remove that material from the groundwater,” Daniells says.
To help clear that backlog of contaminated sites, Kentucky will receive more than $4 million dollars in federal stimulus funds. Daniells hopes that might be enough to clean up nearly 70 sites. Kentucky does have a state fund to help tank owners clean up sites. But it’s not enough to cover abandoned or improperly registered sites. And it’s some of those older sites, with the traditional steel tanks, instead of the newly required fiberglass, that worry Patricia Ellis. That’s because the steel corrodes over time. She’s a hydrologist with the state of Maryland’s underground storage tank department. But she says that’s not the only concern.
“There’s just so many little places where pipes connect and things like that. And every one of those has a chance of leaking,” says Ellis.
What’s more, Ellis says newer fiberglass tanks aren’t immune to corrosion either. But ironically, she’s talking about their vulnerability to what many consider an environmentally friendly bio-fuel. Many gas stations offer gas with 10% ethanol. And a few vehicles have been designed to run on blends of 85% ethanol.
“And even at the lower percentages it’s having a corrosive effect on some systems, because they were never certified for ethanol to begin with. And when you increase the percentages, there’s kind of a magic intermediate percent that’s even more corrosive than 100% ethanol,” Ellis says.
Ellis says that if the tank springs a leak, the ethanol poses less immediate danger.
“One wonderful thing about ethanol is that is degrades wonderfully in the soil and groundwater, but it takes away the oxygen and nutrients the other components of gasoline need to naturally degrade in the groundwater,” says Ellis.
While states eye new regulations for tanks, they still face the enormous task of tackling what’s already been buried beneath the surface. The Environmental Protection Agency is doling out varying amounts to nearly every state to address the problem. But in Kentucky, those funds may be stretched to their limit. The state has the third worst record in the country in terms of the number of tank owners who actually comply with the regulations for preventing and detecting leaks. And it’s in the top 10 nationwide for the largest number of leaks already confirmed.
Coal-fired power plants may not be going away any time soon. But state officials hope they can perform a disappearing act with the carbon dioxide from those plants. That’s why workers will spend the next couple of months boring to a depth of more than 8000 feet at a site in Hancock County, Kentucky. Then, researchers will inject carbon dioxide into the well in hopes that it seeps into the tiny pores of subterranean rock. If it stays put, power plants could have options for storing the CO2 they emit. But Kentucky Geological Survey researcher Rick Bowersox says the storage part isn’t the problem. It’s grabbing the CO2 before it escapes.
“The carbon capture part of this process is the unknown. There are several different processes that are under study and under test,” says Bowersox.
Some of those processes will be studied and tested by members of a recently announced consortium of Kentucky researchers, government officials, and industry representatives. The consortium will test a portable carbon capture unit as well as new combustion technologies that reduce the amount of CO2 produced.
A measure to block funding for a proposed police storage facility in south Louisville has failed.
The facility would hold unused ammunition and explosives confiscated by the bomb squad. In the spring, Councilman Doug Hawkins raised concern over its location near Cardinal Hill Reservoir. Despite assurances from police and others that anything stored in the facility wouldn’t pose any danger to nearby homes or the water supply, Hawkins remained skeptical.
Last night, he withdrew his sponsorship of a measure to block funding for the facility, after it was amended by the Metro Council to allow the project to move forward.
“We haven’t quit fighting,” says Hawkins. “We’ve got other places to take it and we will not let them put that bomb storage facility up there, period.”
Hawkins said he may try to take the issue before the state legislature, but offered no further details. Some council members have accused Hawkins of exaggerating the matter to boost his campaign for the state Senate, which he denies.