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Published on August 3rd, 2011 | by Silvio Marcacci


Carbon Capture: Pipe Dream or Key to our Energy Challenges?

August 3rd, 2011 by  

New smokestack scrubber technology could reduce emissions from coal

Every year, about 30 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are released around the world, with almost half that amount coming from coal. In the U.S., coal provides almost half our electricity, making it tough to simply stop burning it. However, every ton of coal burned releases harmful emissions into our atmosphere, oceans, and rivers, warming the planet, and increasing public health risks.

The coal question may be America’s single biggest energy challenge. But what if we could capture carbon dioxide directly from the smokestacks of power plants? energyNOW! correspondent Dan Goldstein explored how several innovative carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technologies could keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and help prevent the climate from changing in the video below. Check it out:

Scientists at General Electric’s Global Research Center in upstate New York may have discovered an answer to the carbon question: amino silicones. Far from experimental, they are found in something we use every day. “The same types of materials used in shampoo and conditioners were materials that we thought we could use in this particular instance to capture carbon,” said Bob Perry, a General Electric chemist. “With the CO2 we’ve captured, we now have it in a confined space and can move that toward someplace for storage, for sequestration.”

CCS may be key to reducing carbon emissions, but installing it on America’s nearly 600 coal-fired power plants won’t be cheap. “The consumers’ [are] going to see an increase in the cost of electricity of 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour,” said Gary Rochelle, a chemical engineer at the University of Texas in Austin who has developed a technology to rinse carbon dioxide out of power plant smokestack emissions. “That’s a 50 to 100 percent increase in what they’ll be paying for electricity.” High operating costs may be a harbinger of CCS failure – utilities have already postponed or cancelled several CCS pilot programs.

While CCS is expensive, and as yet unproven, environmental advocates say it is worth the cost to make it succeed. “If we’re going to use fossil fuels, carbon capture has got to be in the toolbox. Otherwise we’re not going to be able to protect the climate,” said David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Program. Hawkins estimates the power plant industry makes $300 billion in revenue a year, which means the industry will have to assume the cost of CCS over time.

Even though the expected cost of CCS retrofits is a barrier to utilities concerned about raising rates, lessons learned from implementing rules to reduce acid rain portend success if – and when – utilities get clear regulatory signals. “It was an extra cost,” recalled Pierre Gauthier, President and CEO of Alstom U.S., a company that designs power plants. “Today nobody even thinks about it – it’s just worked its way into rates, as standards and regulations that you have to do, in order to do business and generate power. We believe the same thing will happen to CO2.”

Not everyone shares his optimism for clear federal policy, however. “We’re still five years away (from implementing CCS technology), said Gary Rochelle. “Five years ago we were five years away, and until we pass cap-and-trade legislation, we’ll always be five years away.”

Of course, with the cost of renewable energy options dropping, the added and already-growing cost of coal power would make it a lot less competitive. 

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

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