Technology could help reduce coal’s harmful emissions

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By Richard Foster

A key method of fighting global warming might lie inside the Earth.

Dr. Michael Karmis of Virginia Tech says that while it’s an admirable goal to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, the problem won’t be fixed until those emissions are prevented from entering the atmosphere. “I do not believe anybody can reduce emissions without having some kind of significant CO2 storage capability,” says Karmis, director of Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research.

Karmis is heading up an $11 million-plus research project to develop technologies for carbon sequestration — the storing of captured carbon dioxide emissions from activities such as burning coal, one of the most abundant energy sources on the planet. “Methods like efficiency, conservation and renewables, all of these are important and should be done. However, without massive sequestration you won’t be able to have much of an impact” on global warming, says Karmis.

Questions regarding carbon sequestration are sparking lively debate among researchers, environmentalists and Dominion Virginia Power, which hopes to have a new $1.6 billion coal-burning power plant on line in Wise County by 2012. 

Dr. Karmis’ team is studying methods of injecting captured pressurized carbon dioxide gases into “unmineable” coal seams that are too deep or thin to be commercially viable. His team will begin performing early small-scale tests this summer in Russell County coal-bed methane wells donated by Pittsburgh-based CNX Gas Corp. “With the studies we have done, we have seen there is considerable capacity within the Southwestern Virginia [coal-bed] reservoir,” Karmis says.

Virginia Tech is one of many partners in the Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership. The group is one of seven partnerships around the country created by the U.S. Department of Energy to study the best methods of capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

The technologies being developed at Tech can be applied to research on storing emissions in other geologic formations, such as oil fields and saline aquifers. Virginia’s coal-based storage method, says Karmis, carries the added benefit of reaping displaced natural gases used in home heating. He estimates that Southwestern Virginia could yield an additional $4 billion in natural gas in coming years as a byproduct of carbon sequestration.

Proposed coal-burning plant

Probably no company in Virginia, however, stands to benefit more from Tech’s carbon sequestration research than Dominion. The proposed power plant in Wise would emit an estimated 5.3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. If it receives final permitting approval from the State Corporation Commission and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Dominion hopes to break ground on the plant this spring.

Dominion says the plant is needed to power Virginia’s soaring appetite for power as its population and economy grows. Adding to the demand is the boom of the Internet — half of the world’s Internet traffic passes through Virginia hubs.

So far, Dominion has contributed $500,000 toward Tech’s research, which is largely funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Tech’s “research is important not only for Dominion, but for the entire energy industry, because about 52 percent of the power in the U.S. is developed by coal,” says James K. Martin, Dominion’s senior vice president of business development and generation construction.

In hearings on a state permit for the plant, Dominion officials have said the Wise facility will be built to utilize carbon capture and sequestration technologies.But there’s a snag. These technologies aren’t expected to be commercially available until 2018 at the earliest, says Karmis.

Opponents question viability

Opponents, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, have questioned whether such technologies will ever be practical. “As far as I can tell, this technology just doesn’t exist and to be banking on it seems environmentally and fiscally irresponsible,” says Joshua Tulkin, deputy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an environmental lobbying group that opposes the plant.

He notes that the cost of adding carbon capture and sequestration technologies has not been factored into the plant’s $1.6 billion price tag. A study by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor says that implementing the technology could double the cost of power generation. (A Dominion spokesman says the utility has no estimates yet for how much the technology would cost, let alone the financial impact it would have on consumers.)

Both the capture and storage technologies will likely not be available for another 10 years. Companies such as German engineering firm Siemens are developing technologies to capture power-plant carbon emissions. Their research is being conducted at the 1-megawatt level, far from Dominion’s planned 585 megawatts in Wise.

Tech’s research focuses on carbon storage. It is seeking federal approval for large-scale carbon sequestration tests — storing more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide — possibly to be conducted at the Eastman Chemical Co. plant in Kingsport, Tenn., beginning in 2012. But that too is far less than the 5.3 million tons of carbon dioxide that Dominion’s Wise County plant would be emitting each year.

Karmis says Dominion’s Wise plant would be primed to take advantage of the technology because of its infrastructure, which would include piping for carbon sequestration, and the plant’s proximity to storage coalfields, which would eliminate the need for costly long-distance pipelines.

In the meantime, Dominion plans to take additional measures to reduce its carbon emissions. In addition to coal, the Wise power plant would burn about 20 percent waste wood, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal. The power station would also utilize a circulating fluidized-bed technology that will mix the fuel with limestone, lessening the carbon emissions.

Dominion also is putting clean wind-turbine-powered power plants into operation this year in West Virginia and Indiana, and it has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a third nuclear power unit at its North Anna plant.

Despite these measures, the company submitted an agreement to the State Corporation Commission in early March that says it would not request additional profit on investment for building a clean-coal plant under state incentives. The agreement with SCC staff and the state attorney general’s office says the company could apply for the increased return on investment once it adopts carbon sequestration technologies.

Environmentalists argue this shows Dominion’s “clean-coal” claim for the Wise plant was only for publicity. They also question the wisdom of using coal-fired power plants at all, given the variety of cleaner means available for generating power. The new coal-burning plant “would be one of the top 10 most polluting facilities in the state,” Tulkin says.

Martin says it’s unrealistic to eliminate coal from the equation entirely, balancing coal’s overabundance as a natural resource with America’s ever-growing power demands. “The U.S. holds more coal reserves than Saudi Arabia has oil reserves, so we’re not going to be able to go away from using coal in the U.S,” says Martin.

Putting aside the Dominion power plant debate, the U.S. Department of Energy has made studying the feasibility of carbon capture and sequestration a priority. It hopes the technologies will allow the nation to meet growing power needs without emitting more harmful greenhouse gases. The future issue for coal may not be what it can get out of the coalfields, but what it can keep in. 

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