Carbon Capture Test Called a Success by We Energies
A test of carbon capture technology in Wisconsin shows that – in the perfect world – technology might lessen the impact of coal-burning power plants on climate change. From Journal-Sentinel writer Thomas Content (via the good people at Energy News Network):
We Energies says carbon-capture project works
An $8 million pilot project in Wisconsin successfully showed that carbon dioxide can be captured and kept from being released from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, We Energies and two partners said Thursday.
The project was the first real-life demonstration of technology that uses chilled ammonia to act as a magnet to capture the greenhouse gas and purify it for possible shipment into underground geological formations instead of into the air.
The Wisconsin project, at the Pleasant Prairie Power Plant, was able to grab at least 90% of the greenhouse gas, officials said, and the French company Alstom that developed the technology is optimistic its next test will capture even more carbon dioxide.
(via Energy News Network)
Since this was just a test, the captured carbon dioxide was released rather than sequestered underground. A similar test at AEP’s Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia will be the first full-scale implementation of the technology. Alstom plans to begin selling the technology in 2015.
A few potential problems are already apparent:
- Ammonia is synthesized from natural gas. This process of ammonia synthesis generates CO2, so using synthesized ammonia to capture CO2 may not result in a net decrease. At the very least, the ammonia synthesis stage needs to calculated into the final reduction of this process for a true measure of the CO2 reduction accomplished through this process.
- Ammonia happens to be one of the major inputs for commercial agriculture. It is used in creating fertilizer. Reducing the ammonia available for farming will have much the same impact that diverting corn into ethanol production did: reduced availability resulting in higher prices for ammonia and ultimately higher food prices.
- The process of ammonia capture consumes between 20-25 percent of the energy produced from the coal-burning plant. This, too, has the effect of making electricity more expensive. As David Biello wrote in the Scientific American blog when the company announced the preliminary results of the test earlier this year:
In other words, capturing that CO2 will cost between $50 and $90 per metric ton, though (Robert) Hilton [Vice President of Power Technologies and Government Affairs at Alstom] believes that scaling up the process and refining it will reduce that cost…
The problem with the “efficiency of scale” argument made by Mr. Hilton is that he assumes a large-scale deployment of the technology. This is a circular argument, since widespread deployment of carbon-capture technology is dependent on making the technology affordable.
- It is also important to note that there has to be someplace to but the carbon dioxide after it is removed from the plant exhaust. In this “small” test, over 58,000 tons of CO2 was captured from a small fraction of the total emissions of one power plant. Nowhere in Wisconsin is there anyplace to sequester the captured CO2 from this and other coal-burning power plants in the state. Wisconsin lacks the proper geological formations to use the same underground deep-well injection technique planned for the Mountaineer plant. Sending the gas by pipeline to a neighboring state has been proposed, but there are no plans and no funding to construct such a pipeline.
Even if all those obstacles can be overcome, it still leaves a power generation system in place that is dependent on cheap coal.
For the billions (or trillions) of dollars it will take to test, develop, and implement carbon capture, isn’t it worth at least considering something truly groundbreaking and sustainable, like improved firming capability for wind and solar energy instead?