Coal vs. Climate
NEW HAVEN - Later this week, American Electric Power will begin pumping a small stream of carbon dioxide from its Mountaineer Power Plant deep under the bottomland along the Ohio River in Mason County.
AEP hopes the gas stays there. The company wants it tucked safely away, where it can't add to the heat-trapping gases already building up to dangerous levels in the Earth's atmosphere.
If the Columbus, Ohio-based utility's pilot project works out, it might just help save the world - and along the way rescue the coal industry.
But coal is in a race with the climate.
The planet is heating up faster than scientists thought it would just a few years ago. Experts say greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced soon, before it's too late.
At the same time, the coal industry says it needs more time to perfect and deploy technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from power plants.
Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is expensive. It sucks up a lot of a power plant's energy and takes up tremendous space.
Power companies haven't figured out exactly how to do CCS on the monumental scale needed. And experts aren't sure if pumping such huge amounts of compressed CO2 underground is really safe.
Nobody knows if coal or climate is going to win this important race, but the world is watching, and even some of the strongest advocates of CCS have started to make it clear that the path ahead for coal is far from easy.
"The Congress and indeed all Americans must come to recognize the gigantic undertaking and significant sacrifices that this enterprise is likely to require," Gary Spitznogle, AEP's manager of CCS engineering, told a House committee in Washington in late July.
In a recent special edition of the journal Science, Scottish CCS expert R. Stuart Haszeldine warned that carbon capture projects might be falling behind the pace that is needed.
Haszeldine cited a "lamentable lack of financial commitment to real construction." If more pilot projects aren't up and running by 2014, "learning from these to provide commercial credibility will drift beyond 2020."
"The worldwide construction of many tens of hundreds of large CCS plants - necessary for a substantial impact on climate mitigation - will then be delayed beyond the deadline set by climate change predictions," Haszeldine wrote.
Coal's 'elusive holy grail'
In recent months, one major media outlet called CCS coal's "elusive holy grail." Without it, another outlet said, the industry faces a "valley of death."
Report after report makes it clear that any real effort to reduce greenhouse gases must target coal. Emissions from coal-fired power plants are the nation's largest source of global warming pollution. Coal represents about a third of U.S. greenhouse emissions, equal to the combined output of all cars, trucks and buses.
Climate scientists recommend swiftly reducing these emissions, and ultimately cutting them by at least 80 percent by mid-century to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
In 2007, the U.N.-chartered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that unabated greenhouse-gas emissions could likely increase global temperatures by as much as 11 degrees by 2100. The IPCC, a collection of more than 2,000 scientists from around the world, said there was little time to lose.
"If there's no action before 2012, that's too late," said IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri, who is both a scientist and an economist. "What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
'It's been a circus'
The Mountaineer Plant's smokestacks tower over a bend in the Ohio River northeast of Point Pleasant.
Lately, the nearly 30-year-old plant has been crawling with visitors from around the world. Everybody wants to get a look at AEP's first-of-its kind CCS project.
"It's been a circus," said J.L. Perry, the plant's energy production superintendent.
When state permits were issued for the project, Gov. Joe Manchin - one of the project's biggest boosters - proclaimed that CCS technology "is here, today."
But in reality, all that's here today is a relatively small test project.
AEP has strapped its CCS equipment onto a "slip stream" that represents about 20 megawatts of the 1,300-megawatt Mountaineer Plant. It captures a similar share of the facility's carbon dioxide emissions, or about 1.5 percent. AEP hopes to win federal funding to expand to about 230 megawatts, still less than one-fifth of the plant's capacity and emissions.
So far, industry has tried carbon capture only on a very small scale. Experts agree that one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to translate small test projects to literally thousands of power plants around the world.
Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, put the scale of CCS needed into perspective in a 2006 paper.
Suppose the world wanted to capture just 10 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and pump them underground, Smil wrote. Doing so would "call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by a petroleum industry whose infrastructure and capacities have been put in place over a century of development.
"Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation."
'Almost inevitable decline'
Nearly a decade ago, the IPCC had warned that the coal industry "producing the most carbon intensive of products, faces almost inevitable decline in the long term."
The 2001 report noted that CCS technologies were being tested, but would not make "major contributions" to emissions cuts until at least 2020.
Then, in a 2005 report - its most detailed examination of CCS - the IPCC concluded carbon capture at coal plants could provide somewhere between 15 and 54 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2100.
But most of those reductions aren't expected to happen until the second half of the century. And in its 2007 assessment, the IPCC warned that CCS might not make "important contributions" to climate change mitigation until after 2030, a decade later than previously thought.
Meanwhile, scientific findings have shown things are getting worse.
This March, for example, a collection of scientists reported that many indicators of climate change - surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events - were at or beyond the IPCC's worst-case projections.
"There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt of irreversible climatic shifts," said the report from the Copenhagen Climate Science Congress.
And in May, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that their most comprehensive modeling shows global temperatures are likely to increase twice as much as they projected just six years before.
"This increases the urgency for significant policy action," said Ronald Primm, director of MIT's Center for Global Change Science.
'Blessed with real estate'
From the roof of the Mountaineer Plant, you can see for miles. And you get a bird's eye view of the huge vacant lot, where AEP had originally planned to build a second generating unit.
Today, it's a good thing that unit was scrapped. If Mountaineer is going to add more CCS units, perhaps enough to scrub all of its CO2 emissions, it needs the space.
"We're blessed with real estate," Spitznogle said during a plant tour in mid-August.
Lack of space could turn out to be one of the most basic problems utilities face. The rule of thumb is that CCS requires a footprint equal to the existing power plant.
"In other words, it is likely that the installation of a system to treat the entire plant flue gas output would double the land space occupied," Spitznogle said. "Some plants can accommodate this requirement, but many plants cannot."
Space is just one of the problems, though, and may not be the most serious.
For example, removing carbon dioxide from the plant's other emissions takes a lot of energy. And that means a lot of cost.
In an October 2008 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists said the current "state-of-the-art" CO2 capture system - using chemical amines to scrub out the gases - takes so much energy that it reduces plant output by one-quarter.
"Stated in other terms, it is like having to build one new coal process for every three to four conventional plants," the report said.
At Mountaineer, AEP is taking another process. It uses chilled ammonia, rather than amines, to strip the carbon dioxide from other plant emissions.
Amine-scrubbing is estimated to increase power costs by 60 to 70 percent. AEP hopes its ammonia process will cost less, but concedes it will still "require significant amounts of energy and therefore result in higher costs for coal-fueled electricity."
In July, Harvard University experts reported that CCS could cost even more than feared - enough to double electricity costs from first-generation plants. Costs would drop as the technology matures, but still amount to an increase of 22 to 55 percent, according to the Harvard report.
In the environmental community, some remain very skeptical of carbon capture and storage. Greenpeace labels the technology a "false hope." Author Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute warns that coal supplies might run out before CCS is ready for wide deployment.
Some in the coal industry, led by Massey Energy President Don Blankenship, still argue that global warming is a hoax or a Ponzi scheme.
Last week, 18 of the nation's top scientific organizations wrote to Congress, to repeat previous warnings about global warming.
"Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver," the groups said. "If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced."
For at least two decades, legislative efforts to deal with climate change have failed. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., led efforts in 1997 to block the Clinton administration from ratifying an international treaty to curb emissions. Shortly after taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush reneged on a campaign pledge to require emissions cuts.
But President Obama supports massive cuts in greenhouse pollution. This summer, the House passed a bill that many scientists and environmental groups support. All three of West Virginia's House members voted against the measure. They said emissions reductions should be delayed, and more CCS funding provided, to help the coal industry.
The United Mine Workers union said the House bill provided a "remarkable" amount of money for CCS, and that, under the bill "the future of coal will be intact."
But the UMW is still pushing for further delays in emissions cuts and more money for CCS.
Political observers list Byrd and Sen. Jay Rockefeller as being on the fence. Both have said they want more done to give coal time to perfect and deploy CCS.
Physicist Joseph Romm, who edits the Climate Progress blog, is skeptical that CCS will be a major part of the solution to climate change.
"But, Romm wrote recently, "I could be wrong, and it's well worth finding out if CCS works."
And, Romm added, "If more money for CCS gets Byrd's vote, at least to block a filibuster ... it's well worth it."