Coal-Plant CO2 Captured, Stored Underground In US First

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Carbon capture has captured significant but far from unanimous support among environmentalists. The National Resources Defense Council is wildly enthusiastic about it, seeing it as a chief tool in the fight against climate change, but Greenpeace not long ago put out a report announcing the demise of carbon capture. Among the problems it cited: prohibitively expensive costs; huge energy intensity required in the capture and compression process; the lack of safe-storage certainty; and limits to storage capacity.

The Sierra Club is somewhere in between. It has a bit of a wait and see view, saying “right now, there are no commercially available or widely demonstrated technologies including carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) that make it technologically possible or financially feasible to burn coal without accelerating global warming.”

carbon capture, plant barry

Plant Barry, in Alabama. (image via Southern Company)

With the Alabama project, by injecting 550 metric tons of CO2 per day – 100,000 to 150,000 tonnes per year — for two years, and monitoring what happens in and around the site for three years afterward, the DOE hopes to gain insight into the technological possibilities.

But that will still leave the financial feasibility up in the air. A recent International Energy Agency study [PDF] estimated costs of power plants with CO2 capture to be “74 percent higher than the reference costs without capture,” and Greenpeace, in its critique, said the capital costs of coal plants with carbon capture “would be 2 1/2 times that of concentrating solar power and more than 4 times that of wind power.”

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: