The Race to Carbon Capture

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Satish Saini's picture
Sr. Project Manager, Hydro One; Chair, IEEE Smart Grid Technical Activities Committee Hydro One

33 years of accomplished management experience in various fields of energy and power including utilities, consulting and others with number of awards, appreciation letters and recognitions. Holds...

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  • Oct 23, 2009

The gleaming, metallic gray Schwarze Pumpe coal-generating complex rises in eastern Germany, not far from the Polish border. At the facility, Vattenfall is now running one of the most advanced efforts in the world to capture carbon for long-term storage.

The project is relatively small in scope. A visitor can circle the equipment in a 5-minute stroll. But the national and economic stakes are huge. There is now a growing consensus that the future of the global economy, the energy sector and the environment will in large part depend on whether an affordable way can be found to capture and sequester carbon dioxide, which is created as coal is burned. At stake, some estimate, will be tens of trillions of dollars.

Securing the future of coal is enormously significant. It now is used to generate more than half the electricity in America. But it is part of a much bigger story -- the escalating, global race to clean energy. European manufacturers, assisted by years of generous subsidies, have developed robust wind turbine and solar manufacturing sectors. Now European countries, notably Spain and Germany, are peeling back some of those subsidies. The Europeans are eager to shift their growth to what promises to be the largest market yet, the United States, taking advantage of new subsidies put in place by the Obama administration to help light up the U.S. economy.

Germany has bet its economic future on clean energy becoming a dominant determinant of national economic fortune. That view was articulated by Hans-Josef Fell, member of the Bundestag and energy leader of the influential Green Party. After a decade of large government subsidies, primarily of solar and other renewables, 280,000 Germans now draw a paycheck from a job tied to renewables, up from 30,000 in 1998, Fell said. Future job growth from climate policies will be equally dramatic, he said.

Germany's Schwarze Pumpe facility, operated by Vattenfall, a Sweden-based energy utility, is a mini-30-megawatt plant that captures carbon dioxide at the rate of 9 tons an hour, chills it into a liquid and then readies it for eventual long-term underground storage. Vattenfall's time line is to build a 300- to 500-megawatt demonstration plant using the technology by 2015 and a 1,000-megawatt plant by 2020. At the Schwarze Pumpe pilot, a unit purifies oxygen and injects it into the boiler where coal is burned. That generates a flue gas that is 98 percent carbon dioxide, which is then liquefied and stored in a tank. Pipes exiting the tank terminate in a spigot that, at least initially, will be used to transfer the carbon dioxide to trucks for transport to a storage site.

Capacity Questions

The European Union intends to launch a dozen demonstration plants using carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Similar efforts are under way in other corners of the world.

A global race to develop successful technology "has already broken out," said Julio Friedmann, carbon management program leader at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The economic stakes will be breathtaking. The market size will be determined by taking the annual global emissions of carbon dioxide -- 8 billion tons -- and multiplying it by whatever price is attached on carbon by global agreement.

"Whoever develops the best technology will have a large export economy," Friedmann said.

The Vattenfall Schwarze Pumpe test is using what is called an "oxyfuel" method. But much of the global race will be focused on post-combustion capture and storage technology because there are so many coal-fired plants in existence, Friedmann said. American Electric Power, the Midwest utility giant, starting this month will test post-combustion technology at its Mountaineer plant in West Virginia and a similar effort is soon to be cranked up by the Chinese in Shanghai.

The world has known how to capture carbon dioxide from flue gas for 80 years, Friedmann said, but "the race to make it cheaper and better started in earnest 10 years ago." Japan, Norway and Canada are in the lead while the United States, Australia and China "have interesting technology," he said. "It is still very early in the day and any industrial country can be competitive."

Don't count out the United States, said Granger Morgan, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Morgan told a gathering of utility executives in San Francisco this summer, "The United States will finish ahead of the Europeans in commercial-scale carbon capture and sequestration." He warned, however, "We need to get off the dime and put the pieces together and make electricity with it."

But some major concerns linger. Howard J. Herzog, principal research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working on carbon capture and sequestration for two decades, said, "The largest uncertainty is storage." But, he said, "Even in the worst case, we have enough capacity for the first wave of these."

A delicate global dance is now under way as the United States, Europe and others watch each others' attempts to define national carbon reduction policies. "We're not going to see a lot of CCS until we have climate policy," Herzog said. Beyond that, "it is hard for Europe or the United States to get too far ahead of each other on climate policy. If a competing country doesn't do it, it will raise cost on your own industry," he said. "The technology is ready to move forward a lot quicker than policy is letting it."

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EnergyBiz magazine is the thought-leading, award-winning publication of the emerging power industry. This article originally appeared in the September/October 2009 issue.

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