|By Russell Ray, Managing Editor|
Later this year, Southern Co.’s controversial Kemper power plant will be placed online and the world will see how technology will turn coal-fired generation into an effective tool to combat climate change.
The 550-MW integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) facility in eastern Mississippi will be the first large-scale coal plant in the U.S. to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Kemper will convert lignite or brown coal, the dirtiest and cheapest form of coal, into a cleaner-burning syngas. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas scientists have linked to global warming, and other impurities are then stripped from the gaseous fuel before it is burned. The resulting emissions will be as low as those produced by a power plant fueled with natural gas. What’s more, the captured CO2 will be piped 62 miles south, where it will be used for enhanced oil recovery.
“Quite remarkable,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said after visiting the project back in November. “We’re going to need not 10, maybe 100 more of these plants across the country.”
The Kemper project represents a technological tool for suppressing climate change and preserving one of this nation’s most abundant and reliable resources for power generation.
The problem, though, is cost. At more than $4 billion, the project’s cost is more than a billion dollars over budget, according to Southern Co. subsidiary Mississippi Power.
But the cost is sure to come down as more CCS projects, including SaskPower’s Boundary Dam project in Canada and Summit Power’s Texas Clean Energy Project, are deployed. To foster this mission, the U.S. Department of Energy has funded several demonstration projects and is providing up to $8 billion in loan guarantees for CCS projects. The first deadline to apply is Feb. 28.
“Carbon capture is obviously an important part of what we’re trying to do at the Department of Energy,” Peter Davidson, executive director of DOE’s Loan Program Office, said while speaking at POWER-GEN International 2013. “We really want to get the word out that the government is open for business with this $8 billion solicitation.”
Despite the progress made at Kemper, CCS remains a questionable technology and is not commercially viable on a national scale. A number of CCS projects have failed, primarily due to economics and disputes over government policy. But over time, the cost of CCS technology will come down and the technical challenges will be overcome with the help of DOE funding of further research and development.
While Kemper is an exemplary project that illustrates the promise of CCS as a technological solution to climate change, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to establish the nation’s first-ever limit on CO2 emissions based on CCS technology is grossly premature. The limit – 1,100 pounds per megawatt-hour for coal plants – would be impossible to meet without building a costly CCS system. The agency pointed to Kemper, claiming the project is proof that CCS is ready for commercial deployment on a national scale.
But the technology used at Kemper was developed under a unique set of circumstances and cannot be replicated in other parts of the country. The CCS system at Kemper was developed by Southern Co. along with its partners and should not be used to establish a national standard for CO2 emissions.
Right now, CCS technology is not being used at a commercial-scale power plant anywhere in the U.S. Yet, the EPA is using the technology to establish environmental law. Under the Clean Air Act, any CO2 standard for new plants must be based on “the best system of emission reduction” that has been “adequately demonstrated.”
At POWER-GEN International 2013, Amy Ericson, president of Alstom U.S., said the technology has not met that legal threshold just yet, because CCS providers are still unable to guarantee compliance. However, Ericson is confident the technology will be ready for large-scale commercial operation once more testing and demonstration is performed.
“There are projects moving forward throughout the globe,” Ericson said. “It will reach commercial viability. It’s just a matter of when.”
The power sector and the U.S. government have not given up on research and implementation. They can’t afford to ignore what many describe as the most important technological solution to climate change.
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