CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new study suggests that technology to capture greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants may be more ready for wide deployment than industry officials and political leaders in coal states would have the public believe.
The new review, published last week in the journal Energy Policy, found that most experts on the process don't question the "readiness" of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology.
"CCS experts share broad confidence in the technology's readiness, despite continued calls for commercial-scale demonstration projects before CCS is widely deployed," concluded the paper, which examined the barriers to broad application of carbon dioxide controls by electrical utilities. Such a finding conflicts with many previous studies, but provides an interesting contrast to what most coal country discussion of CCS inevitably concludes.
A team from the University of Utah's law school and its Institute for Clean and Secure Energy surveyed 229 CCS experts from academia, industry, environmental groups and government to try to evaluate the state of knowledge about CCS technology.
Among other things, the survey identified a variety of previously noted hurdles: high cost, lack of government regulations to encourage deployment, long-term liability risks and the failure of government officials a regime of rules governing CCS.
Utah law professor Lincoln Davies and his co-authors emphasized that most CCS experts continue to see the lack of a "carbon price" -- in the form of some sort of mandate to reduce emissions -- as a key barrier for the technology's advancement.
"However limited the progress on broad-scale CCS commercialization has been to date, the path toward deployment within the United States is clear," their study said.
"Comprehensive regulation and meaningful carbon pricing are essential if CCS is to move from promising prospect to commercial-scale implementation," they found. "In the absence of government leadership, the private sector is unlikely to assume the significant economic costs inherent in adopting CCS."
Alan Nogee, an energy consultant formerly with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the new Utah study matched most previous examinations of CCS, except that its conclusion about the technology's "readiness" did not "seem consistent with the rest."
In June, President Obama announced, as part of a broad climate change action plan, that he had directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get to work on long-delayed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Under the president's plan, the EPA would first finalize carbon dioxide limits for new power plants by September. EPA would then move forward with carbon dioxide limits for existing plants, issuing a proposal by June 2014 and finalizing those limits by June 2015. The rules will cover all electricity-generating stations -- the source of one-third of U.S. greenhouse emissions -- but would almost certainly be tougher on coal-fired plants because burning coal produces more carbon dioxide than burning natural gas.
Coal industry officials and their allies among Appalachian political leaders complained that the Obama proposal would move too quickly, setting standards they said utilities couldn't meet with currently available equipment.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, for example, "The regulations the president wants to force on coal are not feasible. And if it's not feasible, it's not reasonable."
A few years ago, Manchin and other political leaders were saying otherwise. When American Electric Power received a state permit in May 2009 for a CCS test project at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, then-Gov. Manchin said, "I've always said that we need to discover modern and more environmentally friendly ways to use the tremendous resource we have in West Virginia coal.
"That technology is here, today," Manchin said at the time.
Later that year, the Obama administration awarded AEP more than $330 million in federal money to expand the Mountaineer CCS project. But by July 2011, AEP had dropped plans for that expansion, citing among other things the failure of federal legislation that would have mandated carbon dioxide emissions cuts by the nation's power plants.
"Setting a carbon price or providing some other financial incentive for CCS use is an essential first step to CCS commercialization," the new Utah study reported.
"Without a sufficiently high carbon price or some other comparably strong inducement, CCS is unlikely to reach widespread commercialization," the report said. "While this conclusion may be unremarkable to those familiar with climate change mitigation possibilities, in the electricity sector, its importance is unmistakable."
Scientists have for years recommended swift reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Experts have also concluded that the key to coal's survival in a carbon-constrained world is to perfect technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions and pump those emissions underground. However, CCS has never been deployed on a commercial scale at a coal-fired plant.
Critics worry about the expense, safety and a host of technical hurdles, including the huge infrastructure needed to install the equipment on power plants across the world. Environmental and citizen groups also are hesitant to support CCS, worrying that the talk of "clean coal" allows the government and industry to ignore what they argue are other much-needed improvements in the regulation of how coal is mined and burned, and how coal wastes are handled.
A recent review by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service repeated the long list of concerns and potential problems with CCS, and another major paper, published in April -- also by the journal Energy Policy -- warned that CCS deployment is far behind the schedule that is needed for it to contribute to managing global warming.
"It is clear that the current development path will not fulfill expectations of CCS being commercially available at the end of this decade, nor will CCS be widely applied in time for significant contributions to needed CO2 emission reductions," said the April paper, written by Björn Nykvist, a researcher at Stockholm University.
"CCS will only be developed if policy-makers continue to favor coal based power generation while simultaneously developing stringent climate policy."
In their survey, the Utah researchers found that most CCS experts ranked the lack of commercial-scale projects near the bottom of their list of concerns about CCS development.
"This stands in stark contrast to the scholarly literature, which long has suggested that large, commercial-scale projects must be completed in defined, sequential stages before CCS can truly get off the ground," the Utah researchers reported.
"Contrary to this view, our survey suggests that the CCS industry is confident that the technology can be made fully operational today. This implies that calls for commercial-scale demonstration of CCS technology may have more to do with investor confidence and social acceptance than engineering capacity and technological know-how." Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.