Another Problem for Carbon Storage: Earthquakes


Bummer. In addition to the high price and the incredibly slow pace of R&D, the technology for capturing and storing carbon emissions from power plants is facing another potential hiccup: earthquakes. According to Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback (whom we’ve written about before), storing captured carbon emissions in underground reservoirs could lead to earthquakes.

The potential earthquakes wouldn’t likely be big enough to be dangerous, points out Zoback, but the result could be a release of the carbon back into the atmosphere. A practice in futility, basically. Zoback says any earthquake that resulted from such a scenario would have happened anyway, but by injecting carbon into the reservoir, the occurrence of the earthquake could be sped up considerably.

Carbon capture and sequestration isn’t the only green technology that has caused seismic concern. The earthquake-causing potential of drilling into the earth to tap into geothermal power, and in particular, developing “enhanced geothermal systems,” which involve injecting cold water at a high pressure to fracture the hot rocks, has also come under scrutiny in some locations. The concern over earthquakes shut down an EGS project in Switzerland, and startup AltaRock faced protests from residents living near its original EGS project site at The Geysers in Northern California.

For carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), earthquakes are yet another problem for the technology. One of the biggest problems right now is the high price of CCS. The Department of Energy found that the cost of capturing carbon using current technology is “on the order of $150 per ton of carbon — much too high for carbon emissions reduction applications.” FutureGen, the long-stalled CCS project backed by the DOE and industry groups, infamously went way over budget back in the Bush administration days.

Another problem is that the technology is taking a really long time to be commercialized (mostly because of the high price). Scientist James Hansen has said that capturing and sequestering carbon from a commercial-scale coal plant is at least a decade away.

According to the latest RFP from FutureGen 2.0 (the revamped FutureGen project), FutureGen will attempt to inject the carbon from a power plant in Meredosia, Illinois, owned by Ameren Energy Resources, into the Mount Simon Formation (a deep geologic formation) in Illinois. The specifics of the site won’t be chosen until 2011, and it will likely take quite a long time to get the proper siting and permitting in place.

One of the biggest problems with all these issues with CCS is that natural gas has recently become a cheap, reliable means of power generation that emits less carbon than coal. But, as we all know, natural gas is still a fossil fuel and emits more carbon than clean power. But if natural gas could be combined with reliable capture and sequestration, it could make a real dent in carbon emissions through power generation.

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