October 30, 2013

Is carbon capture and sequestration technology the future of the coal industry?

According to The National Journal, there is a technology that could remedy the serious environmental effects of burning coal.

According to The National Journal, there is a technology that could remedy the serious environmental effects of burning coal. In the midst of a call to stop creating coal plants, and to close those currently in operation, this technology may represent new life for the industry. As in the 1990s, when scrubbers were invented to help burn coal more clearly, this new technology may preserve coal as an enterprise among legitimate environmental concerns.

The Environmental Protection Agency is drafting regulations to control carbon emissions. These include the requirement for coal-fired power plants to use carbon capture and sequestration technology, or CCS. In coal states, industry leaders and lawmakers maintain CCS is not practical, though the EPA disagrees.

“CCS is a technology that is feasible. It is available today,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, as reported in The National Journal. “We know that. We know that because it's been demonstrated to be effective.”

However, a pilot CCS project in West Virginia did not get enough funding to proceed past the demonstration phase. “Until we can do the full-scale demonstration project, we can't have a commercial offering to the marketplace,” according to John Cohen, vice president of government affairs at Alstom, who worked on that project. “No one is offering a CCS product in the market.”

McCarthy maintains that the EPA's requirement for new coal-fired plants to include CCS will naturally drive a market for the technology. Furthermore, just as scrubbers did at their advent, CCS technology is likely to decline in price eventually as more companies adopt it. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, four coal-fired power plants are in the planning phases. These will use CCS technology, as will the one plant that is currently under construction. The project under construction, which is owned by Southern Company and has U. S. Department of Energy backing, costs $5 billion so far.

Whether CCS is the update the coal industry needs to thrive in a world increasingly concerned with global warming, and increasingly enamored with renewable energy technologies, remains to be seen. However, the government is hopeful that CCS technology will, at the very least, reduce the carbon emissions of coal-fired power plants. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia plans to introduce legislation providing subsidies for the use of CCS technology, and the EPA is attempting to collaborate with industry as best it can.