The Energy Blend: Could carbon capture solve coal’s regulatory woes?
It’s no secret that greenhouse gas emissions and climate change have been guiding the social discourse on energy development across the country.
The Clean Power Plan, state regulations and numerous lawsuits targeting the fossil fuel industry all point to increasing regulations on emissions, especially carbon dioxide (CO2).
But what if the operators of coal and natural gas power plants could find a way to not only capture carbon dioxide, but also turn it into marketable products and create an entirely new revenue stream?
That is exactly the challenge that Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, operator of 1,303-megawatt Craig Station coal-fired power plant, along with numerous partners, has taken up.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Craig Station’s total reported emissions in 2014 were about 9.3 million tons of CO2.
“With regulations coming forward on carbon emissions, that presents an increasing risk to affordable and reliable electricity, and it is important to Tri-State that we make investments in technologies that offer solutions to those challenges,” said Lee Boughey, senior manager of corporate communications and public affairs for Tri-State.
One such project Tri-State has invested in is the Integrated Test Center at Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s and the Wyoming Municipal Power Agency’s Dry Fork Station near Gillette.
Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, said the test center will be an industrial-scale laboratory where promising research on carbon capture can be brought to a much larger scale.
At the ITC, live flue gas from the adjacent 422-megawatt coal plant will be diverted to test bays where research teams will conduct their work.
“Sort of like an RV park,” Begger said, describing the layout, which consists of gravel pads with utility hookups and access to the flue gas.
The diversion system that will take the plant’s exhaust to the test bays was installed in spring during a routine outage, and the ITC is anticipated to be complete by the summer of 2017.
Begger said construction costs are estimated at around $14 million, to which Tri-State has contributed $5 million. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has also contributed $1 million.
“Their focus is on the lowest cost, most reliable power for their members,” Begger said.
With current technology, the National Energy Technology Laboratory projects capturing carbon would cost $91 per ton of CO2, increasing the levelized cost of electricity by 75 percent for a subcritical pulverized coal-fired power plant.
Boughey said the current cost of capturing carbon emissions is prohibitive, but if ways could be found to turn the CO2 into a revenue stream it would be a major stride for the industry.
“Rather than it being waste… can you look at carbon emissions as a resource that can be turned into other products that have use?” he said. “That’s a revolutionary idea and one we think is worthy of investigation.”
To spur innovation, Tri-State has been working with the XPRIZE Foundation to create a $20 million prize for the developer of the most successful new technology for turning coal-based flue gas into a marketable product.
The final phase of the competition will be held at the ITC.
“This facility will support the real-world testing of carbon management technologies,” Boughey said.
Reducing carbon emissions came into the spotlight with President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan but has been a topic of conversation for some time. The EPA has even assigned a dollar amount to the social costs of adding one ton of carbon to the atmosphere.
According to the EPA, the middle-of-the-road estimate for the social cost of carbon is $36 per ton.
Professor Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the government’s unwillingness to take into account external costs associated with fossil fuel development have spurred many of the recent lawsuits aimed at the industry.
“This is going to be a standard sort of argument that the environmental groups are going to make regarding any type of fossil fuel development,” he said.
Wyoming’s, as well as the private sector’s, interest in producing carbon capture technologies is partly inspired by putting the political debate to bed, Begger said.
“We’re kind of over fighting climate change talks — it’s not a winning sort of message,” he said.
If the concept of a “carbon-strained” energy environment is an undeniable reality, fossil fuel companies and the communities that have economies reliant on them want to be the ones to find solutions.
“We need quit looking at it as a political football and recognize that, like other emissions were, it’s an engineering challenge, and, given enough resources and reasonable timeframe, there is no reason why the industry should not be able to find a solution,” Begger said.
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