Despite notable hurdles, plants that sequester carbon are advancing
Progress may be slower than originally expected, but the Obama administration has continued to push for carbon capture and sequestration, a technology that removes carbon dioxide -- a greenhouse gas -- during the process of energy generation and stores the gas it underground so it doesn't go into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said he would "enter into public private partnerships to develop five 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology."
As we noted in our previous update, several proposed projects that received federal dollars during Obama's tenure were subsequently scrapped. Despite that, experts say that two projects are nearing the operational stage, two more are approaching the construction stage, and others are in earlier stages of development. Here's a rundown:
• Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage project, Decatur, Ill. Run by agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, the Illinois project received $141 million in stimulus funding and $66.5 million in private sector investments, according to the Energy Department. Once fully operational in the late summer of 2013, the project is designed to store up to 1 million tons of carbon dioxide created in ethanol production annually at depths of 7,000 feet.
• Kemper Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, Kemper Co., Miss. Run by the MIssissippi Power Co., the Kemper facility aims to capture at least 65 percent of the carbon dioxide it produces as it turns lignite, a locally abundant form of coal, into a gas. The company claims that construction is 70 percent complete, though an outside analysis suggests it's more like 40 percent complete.
• Texas Clean Energy Project, Odessa, Texas. This Summit Power coal gasification project -- costing $2.5 billion, including $450 million in federal money -- intends to capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide it produces. This carbon dioxide -- an estimated 2.5 million tons per year -- is to be sold for use in "enhanced oil recovery,” a technique which uses the carbon dioxide to aid in the extraction of oil. The injected carbon dioxide either remains under ground, or if it returns to the surface with the produced oil, it is re-captured, re-compressed, and re-injected, resulting ultimately in permanent geological sequestration.
• Hydrogen Energy California Project, Bakersfield, Calif. Jointly run by several companies including BP and GE Energy, the project would convert 90 percent of the carbon dioxide produced in the making of hydrogen fuel and use it for enhanced oil recovery in an Occidental oil field five miles from the capture site. It is currently in the permitting stage.
• FutureGen 2.0, Meredosia, Ill. This $1.65 billion project has been reconfigured from a prior version that was cancelled due to escalating costs and other challenges. The current project would retrofit a coal plant so it sequesters 1.3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year in a saline aquifer. According to news reports, the project is several months behind schedule, which had been to begin design and engineering in 2012 and construction in 2013. The target date for electricity production and carbon storage is 2017.
At least three other projects are in less-advanced stages -- one in Indiana; another in Point Comfort, Texas; and one near Houston.
It's worth noting that -- in addition to questions about cost-effectiveness and technological suitability -- there is a split within the environmental community about whether carbon capture and sequestration should be pursued. Some groups see it as an important tool for fighting global warming, while others are skeptical of the technology or perceive it as too risky or having too many downsides for residents living near proposed plants.
Overall, the Obama administration has spent millions of dollars to help advance several commercial-scale power plants that are designed to use carbon capture and sequestration. There is a long way to go before this is a fully mature technology, but despite some significant bumps on the road, the administration has largely advanced its vision. We rate it a Promise Kept.
Energy Department, "Energy Department Announces Major Milestones for Decatur, Ill. Clean Coal Project,” Sept. 20, 2012
ENGO Network on CCS, "Perspectives on Carbon Capture and Storage," November 2012
State Journal-Register (Springfield, Ill.), "Next few weeks could determine future of FutureGen," Nov. 12, 2012
Greenwire, "Carbon capture moves forward by degrees in Ill. farm country,” Oct. 4, 2012
POWER magazine, "Report: Mississippi Power"s Kemper Project Will Be Over-Budget and Behind Schedule,'" Nov. 29, 2012
Summit Power, "Summit Power Group Celebrates Major Milestones in Financing & Construction of the Texas Clean Energy Project - Generating Jobs and Energy," Sept. 12, 2012
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Hydrogen Energy California Project (HECA) Fact Sheet," accessed Dec. 6, 2012
Interview with George Peridas, co-deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council"s Science Center, Dec. 5, 2012
No new climate law means clean coal is on the back burner
President Obama mentioned clean coal in his 2011 State of the Union Address when he brought up his plan for a clean energy standard. "So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources,” said Obama. "Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all.”
The United States generates almost half of its electricity from coal. Worldwide it is the most plentiful fossil fuel. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that there are 4 trillion short-tons of coal in the United States, of which only about 261 billion short tons are recoverable with current technology. Coal, however, is by far the dirtiest fossil fuel. It generates 81 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 94 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions in the United States.
Enter "clean coal.” The term refers to the process of limiting the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere when a power plant burns coal. This is accomplished by removing carbon dioxide from the flue gas, i.e. the exhaust produced after combustion. This carbon is then pumped deep underground to prevent it from leaking into the atmosphere. The process is known as carbon capture and storage.
First, notice that Obama's promise is to enter partnerships to develop (not build, which takes several years) five "commercial” plants. Such plants are broadly defined as those that produce from 50 to 1,300 megawatts of electricity. According to Steve Miller, chief executive of American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, there are no functioning commercial scale plants yet in the United States. The plants that have been utilizing coal capture and storage thus far have been what is known as "pilot plants.” These are essentially research facilities designed to test various methods of capturing CO2 from coal emissions.
To date, the Obama administration has taken several steps to promote the incipient clean coal industry. In December 2009, the Department of Energy announced its selections for the Clean Coal Power Initiative Round 3. This is the third part of a larger project to, as the name suggests, develop commercial-scale power plants that use carbon capture and storage through public co-financing. The Department of Energy chose six projects for the third round of this program.
The Obama administration also resurrected FutureGen, a planned clean coal power plant in Illinois. The Bush administration dropped funding of the project after it foresaw cost overruns. The new project, dubbed "FutureGen 2.0” costs approximately $1.3 billion. The Department of Energy is responsible for $1 billion, largely from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Private partners are financing the remainder. Construction is slated to begin in the second quarter of 2012 with a planned completion in late 2015. Upon construction it will, according to its designers, store 90 percent of carbon dioxide produced. The plan at FutureGen 2.0 is to transport carbon emissions 30 miles via pipeline to a storage site one mile underground.
In recent months, the administration has experienced setbacks in fulfilling this promise. Of the six projects from the Clean Coal Power Initiative Round 3, three have been cancelled. Most recently, the utility American Electric Power announced that it will suspend its plan to build a commercial plant at its Mountaineer facility in West Virginia. Ultimately, a weak economy and a lack of federal climate legislation explain the project's closure. "(A)s a regulated utility, it is impossible to gain regulatory approval to recover our share of the costs for validating and deploying the technology without federal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions already in place. The uncertainty also makes it difficult to attract partners to help fund the industry's share,” said AEP chairman and chief executive Michael G. Morris in a press release about the project's cancellation.
"When we applied for DOE funding to take CCS (carbon capture and storage) to commercial scale, we fully expected that greenhouse gas rules would be in place by now. That hasn't happened. So we are putting the project on hold,” added Pat Hemlepp, AEP's Director of Corporate Media Relations in an e-mail interview.
Southern Company cancelled its project in Mobile, Ala. for similar reasons.
A climate change bill passed the passed the House of Representatives in 2009, but it failed to become law. It would have provided owners of coal-fired plans with federal financial incentives to try out the relatively expensive CCS process.
Environmental groups say the failure of that bill makes it harder for such projects to go forward.
"At the beginning of his [President Obama's] term it seemed much more likely that there would be legislation that limits or prices emissions of CO2, and that seems much less likely now. That is the reason that many of these projects are being cancelled. Without a policy to limit CO2 emissions, there really is no business case for investing in CCS,” said Karen Palmer, Senior Fellow at the environmental group Resources For the Future.
All in all, progress on clean coal has had its stops-and-starts. American Electric Power and Southern Company's decision to pull back from upgrading pilot projects to commercial plants is a setback. The lack of environmental legislation reduces the urgency of building more commercial plants and therefore the impetus for private-public partnerships such as those promised by Obama. Given the Republican-controlled House of Representatives' reluctance to pass comprehensive legislation on environmental issues, development of any more coal-fired carbon capture and storage plants is unlikely during the remainder of President Obama's first term.
Currently there are four new clean coal plants in development -- FutureGen and the three remaining projects from the Clean Coal Power Initiative Round 3. That's four of the five Obama promised. Given the unlikelihood of any energy legislation in the 112th Congress, we do not think it is likely that this number will increase. In fact, if history is any indication, more projects may be cancelled, and the number fall well below the promised number. Due to these factors, we rate this promise Stalled.
Remarks of President Barack Obama in State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011.
U.S. Energy Information Administration website. Energy in Brief: "What are greenhouse gases and how much are emitted by the United States?”
The New York Times, "Stimulus Money Puts Clean Coal Projects on a Faster Track,” March 16, 2009.
Department of Energy website, Clean Coal Technology & The Clean Coal Power Initiative
Department of Energy website, Clean Coal Power Initiative Round III.
The New York Times, "Utility Shelves Ambitious Plan to Limit Carbon,” July 13, 2011.
The New York Times, "Scattered Attempts at Carbon Capture,” July 14, 2011.
American Electric Power (AEP) press release, July 14, 2011.
The New York Times, "House Climate Bill Dangles Cash to Lure CCS 'First Movers,” July 24, 2009.
E-mail interview with Lawrence Pacheco, Senior Vice President, Financial Dynamics.
E-mail interview with Bruce Niles, Sierra Club.
E-mail interview with Thomas Welch, Department of Energy press office.
Interview with Lisa Miller, Vice President, Media Relations, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
Interview with Steve Miller, CEO, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
Interview with Tom Sarkus, Director, Project Financing & Technology Deployment Division, National Energy Technology Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.
E-mail interview with Karen Palmer, Senior Fellow, Resources For the Future.
Obama resurrects FutureGen
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama said that he would make sure the coal industry isn't a casualty of legislation to slow climate change. So Obama vowed to promote the construction of new power plants that produce electricity by burning coal with lower carbon dioxide emissions than conventional plants.
In his Blueprint for Change, Obama pledged to "enter into public-private partnerships to develop five 'first-of-a-kind' commercial-scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology." Supporters of the technology like to call this "clean coal."
President Obama has taken the first step in fulfilling his promise by resurrecting FutureGen, a plant abandoned by the Bush administration because of its cost. The project's demonstration facility in Mattoon, Ill., received $1 billion from the economic stimulus package, which we explored in this post back in February. The Energy Department released the cash on June 12, 2009.
"This important step forward for FutureGen reflects this administration"s commitment to rapidly developing carbon capture and sequestration technology as part of a comprehensive plan to create jobs, develop clean energy and reduce climate change pollution,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. "The FutureGen project holds great promise as a flagship facility to demonstrate carbon capture and storage at commercial scale. Developing this technology is critically important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and around the world.”
An additional $400 million or more will come from the 20 private companies involved in the FutureGen Alliance.
Coal is used widely in the United States — it generates about half of our electricity — but it's also responsible for about 36 percent of our annual carbon emissions. That helps to explain Obama's political calculations. The biggest detractors of a cap-and-trade plan are lawmakers from coal states such as West Virginia, who fear their coal mining industries will suffer under a plan to limit carbon emissions. And lawmakers from Southern states, where solar, wind and other forms of alternative energy are not as accessible, are worried their constituents will be left without power. The new coal technologies will keep both economies thriving, supporters say.
In his promise, Obama pledged to develop five facilities like FutureGen, so he's only one-fifth of the way there. However, the Energy Department's announcement is a step in that direction, so for now we give him an In the Works.
Blueprint for Change , accessed July 7, 2009
Resources for Change, Obama Administration Puts FutureGen Back in Play , accessed July 7, 2009
Energy Information Administration, Coal Factsheet , accessed July 7, 2009
The Department of Energy, Secretary Chu Announces Agreement on FutureGen Project in Mattoon, IL , accessed July 7, 2009
Energy Information Administration, Factsheet on greenhouse gas emissions , accessed July 7, 2009
The New York Times, DOE Revives FutureGen, Reversing Bush-Era Decision, by Ben Geman of Greenwire , June 12, 2009