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Three carbon capture and sequestration projects valued at a total of $3.18 billion have scored $979 million in stimulus funds, according to a release from the Department of Energy. In all, the three projects — each a commercial-scale demonstration of a heretofore experimental technology for scrubbing emissions from coal-fired power plant flues and burying them underground for long-term storage — will take more than a decade to complete, and will be required to raise more than $2.2 billion in private investment under the cost-sharing rules of the DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative.
The three awards announced today will support projects in West Virginia, Alabama and Texas led by American Electric Power, Southern Company Services and Summit Texas Clean Energy, respectively. With $334 million in DOE funds, AEP plans to “design, construct and operate a chilled ammonia process” at a 1.3 GW power plant owned by Appalachian Power Co. over the next 10 years. From the New Haven, W. Va. plant, AEP plans to pipe the captured and compressed CO2 over to two saline formations 1.5 miles underground.
The DOE has awarded $295 million for Southern Company to undertake an 11-year retrofit of Alabama Power’s coal-fired Plant Barry near Mobile, Ala. Like AEP, Southern Company plans to store captured CO2 — an estimated 1 million metric tons per year — in underground saline formations. But it also hopes to use the gas to boost fuel yields through what’s called “enhanced oil recovery” (explained in our FAQ on carbon capture and sequestration).
The third project is supposed to take eight years, using $350 million in DOE funds. Summit Texas plans to capture 2.7 million metric tons of CO2 per year, or about 90 percent of the emissions at a 400 MW plant near Midland-Odessa, Tex. Rather than saline formations, Summit plans to pipe the captured and compressed gas to oilfields in West Texas’s Permian Basin, where (like Southern Company) it wants to use it for oil recovery.
The massive size and cost, and relatively long timelines for these projects relative to other stimulus-funded energy projects (many scheduled for completion in closer to a 3-5 year time frame) highlights the hurdles that lie ahead for carbon capture to provide the solution promised by its supporters, and for the startups working in this space.
But while carbon capture tech may remain “in Beta,” like a half-baked web tool (as Google CEO Eric Schmidt put it recently), Secretary of Energy Steven Chu says it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle for addressing climate change. He told energy ministers at the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum in October that the tech needs to be ready for “widespread, affordable deployment” within 8-10 years.
Current technology, Chu said in a talk with Schmidt this fall at the Google headquarters, would increase the cost of generating energy from coal by about 80 percent, which is “too high.” An increase of about 20-25 percent, he said, would be “tolerable.”
For anyone expecting a rapid transition to renewable energy, legislators from West Virginia foresee a bright future for fossil fuels. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) championed the coal industry in today’s announcement in Washington, D.C., saying he expects the technologies demonstrated in these DOE-backed projects will help “inspire further investment in coal.” Sen. Robert Byrd (under fire from some coal backers today for an op-ed in which he calls on coal to “embrace the future“) predicted that today’s funding “will help ensure that West Virginia coal continues to heat and light our homes and businesses for many years to come.”