Coal-Plant CO2 Captured, Stored Underground In US First

It ain’t all solar panels, wind turbines and algae oil, people. Among the clean-energy developments the Obama administration is encouraging – part of the $90 billion that Mitt Romney says the president has “invested in so-called green energy companies” – is a big program that would, in effect, allow for the continued burning of coal and other fossil fuels.

Howzat? It’s called carbon capture and sequestration. Some $3 billion of Mitt’s $90 billion is being poured into this broad category, according to the White House. And this week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that carbon dioxide injecting had begun at “the world’s first fully integrated coal power and geological storage project,” in southwest Alabama.

alabama carbon capture

image via SECARB

The government’s Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership program has been moving forward with a number of projects to test the viability of capturing and storing greenhouse gases, but this is the first go at an “anthropogenic test” – one using man-made CO2 from a coal-fired power generating plant. The project, in partnership with Southern Company, is receiving $30.3 million in support from the DOE.*

If all goes as hoped, the CO2 that’s captured and stored could be used for what’s known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR), in which the CO2, in a liquid or “supercritical” state — in which it behaves somewhat like a gas and a fluid — is pumped into deeper mineral formulations to drive out oil. If getting more oil out of the ground doesn’t sound green, the logic is that doing so using EOR will minimize the need for new drilling on protected lands, while at the same time reducing global warming pollution by sequestering large amounts of industrial-produced CO2 undergound.

At the Alabama project, the carbon dioxide being used originates at the 2,657 MW Barry Electric Generating station in Bucks — Plant Barry, as it’s known. A relatively small amount of the flue gas – equivalent to that produced from 25 MW of electrical generation – is being captured. According to the DOE, a process developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is turning this flue gas into “a nearly pure stream of CO2.” The Mitsubishi process is newly developed. A solvent is used to capture a large portion of the CO2 — 90 percent, according to the company — while doing so “with significant reductions in energy penalty from current technologies,” according to a September 2011 presentation [PDF] from the project’s developers.

The CO2 goes in a pipeline, constructed last year, and moves 12 miles west to a geologic structure called the Cirtonelle Dome, “which provides secure four-way closure free of faults or fracture zones.” One of the chief concerns with these underground CO2 storage schemes – which got big play after a 2010 Duke study [PDF] – is possible groundwater contamination. But the DOE says the Paluxy Formation, a reservoir some 3,000-3,400 meters below ground where the Plant Barry CO2 will go, “is too deep and salty to serve as a drinking water supply.”

*This story originally reported the DOE contribution at $295 million, citing a U.S. Department of Energy press release from 2009. However, because the scope of the Plant Barry project changed, the DOE contribution also changed. In an email to EarthTechling, Southern Company spokesman Marc Rice said the DOE contribution to the project was $30.3 million, with a $9.5 million contribution from Southern Company and industry partners. A document [PDF] from the Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, updated January 23, 2012,  puts the total cost of the Phase III development part of the SECARB program — which includes the Plant Barry “Anthropogenic Test” and a separate but related ongoing “Early Test” that does not involve Southern Company — at $111,413,431, with the DOE share at $76,981,260.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • phor11

    So they’re pumping a gas into the ground and think it’s going to stay there?
    I’m much more excited about the companies like Calera working on turning waste CO2 into Concrete than I am for the idea of just pumping it into the ground and hoping for the best.

    • Pete

      This project isn’t a matter of “just pumping it into the ground and hoping for the best.” Storage in deep saline formations has been studied intenisvely and actually practiced for many years, with brines from recovered oil often injected into saline reservoirs (and hazardous waste, too). That said, the whole point of this project is to test the technology. There’s a recognition that we can’t be certain what will happen until it’s tested. As for Calera, it seems like they are really struggling with the alkalinity issue, having to rely on additives (with additional costs and complication) since abandoning the original vision. Probably another case where the price of carbon will determine if the process is economically viable. I wish ’em luck.

  • Richard

    Its actually not CO2 in a gas form but as a liquid. With all the cap rocks and considering the depth of the injection, it would take something on the order of accelerated Wilson Cycles to reunite the CO2 with the atmosphere.

    • Pete

      Excellent point, Richard. Supercritical CO2 — I’ll amend the story to make that clear. As I understand it, kind of middle ground between fluid and gas? And — correct me if I’m wrong — a key point of these demonstrations is to arrive at a better understanding of how this supercritical CO2 interacts with with its subsurface environment — it’s why there’s some uncertainty about how much can be stored in the “spaces” available. Fascinating stuff.

  • It sounds too much like what we are doing with nuclear plant waste i.e., let’s bury it so that future generations can deal with it – proviso being: technological advancements will have solutions in the future. I propose that we should focus on electricity generation technologies that don’t create waste.

    • Pete

      I see why it might look that way, Ruth, but CO2 and nuclear waste are so different in their toxicity, and how they behave underground is so vastly different, that I don’t think the comparison is really apt. There’s really nothing for future generations to deal with when it comes to CO2 storage. I recommend this MIT video as a primer on carbon storage of the sort we’re talking about here: http://youtu.be/95QUfea-e3o