Coal’s Future? Exploring a West Virginia Carbon Capture and Storage Project
In September 2009, American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Power Plant in New Haven, W.Va., began a 20 megawatt project that will capture and store 100,000 tons of CO2 annually.
It’s one of the nation’s first carbon capture and storage demonstration projects where CO2 is captured and trapped deep underground, instead of being released into the atmosphere. In mid-January, a team of CSG analysts got to see it up close and personal to see how the new technology really works.
Producing 1,300 megawatts of electricity, Mountaineer is the world’s largest coal-fired power plant. When the carbon capture and storage project’s validation phase is completed, the project will be scaled up to 235 megawatts—that’s considered commercial scale—storing 1.5 million tons of CO2 per year.
The technology is aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Coal produces 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, emits 27 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions and is predicted to continue its reign as the number-one fuel source for electricity generation for the foreseeable future, experts say. Proponents of carbon capture and storage technology say it’s likely a key component to reducing CO2 emissions.
The CSG team learned about the technical and regulatory challenges facing the technology. For starters, the equipment to capture and store carbon dioxide is expected to cost roughly the same as the plant itself—approximately $1.4 billion. Because the technology isn’t cheap, that means the technology likely won’t be fully implemented until mandated by legislation to do so. Such legislation, in the form of a cap and trade program, passed the U.S. House last year and is being considered by the Senate in the Kerry-Boxer bill.
Mountaineer’s carbon capture and storage project uses a chilled ammonia process developed by a French company, Alstom Power, to capture the carbon. The CO2 is then compressed into a semi-liquid state and transported via pipeline to a well, where it is pumped deep underground.
To date, the process is working as expected and Alstom is hoping to have it commercialized by 2015. One of the challenges associated with carbon capture and storage is that it requires energy to capture CO2. Alstom is hoping to reduce the amount of energy used—known to industry insiders as parasitic load—to around 20 to 25 percent to make carbon capture more cost-effective.
Mountaineer’s project stores the captured carbon between one and a half and two miles underground, and will continue to test the area surrounding the injection site to see how well the carbon dioxide—which is injected as a liquid—flows and stays put. The potential for carbon dioxide leakage is a key concern to policymakers.
With respect to the technical aspects of the technology, projects like Mountaineer’s need layers of rock deep underground that are porous and permeable to store the carbon dioxide. This isn’t hard to find in some areas, but in others, such as New England where this type of geology is rare, plants may have to build pipelines to move CO2 to underground storage wells elsewhere.
The carbon capture and storage technology also needs to clear several regulatory and legal hurdles before it becomes commercially viable. There are several issues that need to be resolved, such as pore space ownership—who owns the underground space; who holds liability for the stored carbon—the companies themselves or states; and how long liability is held.
For example, Louisiana passed legislation in 2009 under which the state assumes liability for the stored carbon 10 years after injection is completed.
The national Carbon Capture and Storage Regulatory Project is attempting to resolve those issues, which could clear a major impediment to the deployment of the technology.
Though Mountaineer is currently only capturing and sequestering just 1.5 percent of its CO2 output, the demonstration is testing the viability of the technology for the entire coal-fired power generation community, and whether that technology can provide a partial, essential, answer for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.