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Carbon Capture On The Ropes At San Juan Coal Power Plant — Or Not

Why invest in carbon capture to clean up after coal, when you can skip the middleperson and pluck CO2 straight from the atmosphere?

The San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico is emerging as a test case for retrofitting old coal power plants with new carbon capture technology. In this day and age of low cost renewable energy, one might ask if it makes more sense to skip the middleperson and go straight to clean power without going through all the trouble of cleaning up after coal. One might ask, but one might not like the answer, either.

atmospheric carbon capture

Nope, this new carbon capture research is not for the San Juan coal power plant (photo via Argonne National Laboratory)

Carbon Capture Technology Works, But…

To start with the latest development, last week the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory released an assessment of the proposed carbon capture system for the San Juan power plant.

The assessment provided a passing grade for the system’s carbon capture technology, which set off cheering among supporters of the project.

However, that’s kind of like high-fiving when your new high-end electric scooter gets good marks for scootability, when what you really need is a vehicle that can handle the truck traffic on I-95.

The new Los Alamos report is narrowly focused on the carbon capture technology itself, which is no secret because the title of the report is “Preliminary Assessment Of Post-combustion Capture Of Carbon Dioxide At The San Juan Generating Station.

The report is not intended to cover key areas like cost, and it is not based on new data or new findings. Instead, as authors make clear, it is aimed at evaluating an earlier pre-feasibility study commissioned by the project developer, Enchant Energy.

That is also no secret, considering that the sub-title of the report is “An Independent Assessment of a Pre-feasibility Study Conducted by Sargent & Lundy for Enchant Energy.

There. Glad we cleared that up.

Carbon Capture: How 5% Beats 95%

Moving along to the beginning of the story, the San Juan Generating Station has been on the verge of retirement for a while now.

Four of plant’s five owners (Public Service Co. of New Mexico, Tucson Electric Power, Los Alamos County, NM, and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems) have already announced that they are throwing in the towel on San Juan.

Evidently they are not impressed by the bottom line benefits of installing a carbon capture system at the plant.

With the majority of owners hauling up anchor, that should mean the plant will retire in 2022, except for the fifth owner, which is the Farmington Electric Utility System.

FEUS only has a 5% stake in the plant, but it has the right to acquire the other four shares without cost when they exit the project.

In an effort to keep the plant open past 2022, last summer the Farmington city council approved a plan to transfer the other four shares to the firm Enchant Energy, with FEUS retaining its stake.

And that’s how 5% beats 95% for carbon capture.

Why Your Local Utility Hates On Carbon Capture

Though Enchant Energy is more than willing to pick up the San Juan ball, that’s going to be a tough order.

Last July the local utility, PNM (a subsidiary of PNM Resources), made a firm case for shutting down the plant. That argument is based partly on the added expense of carbon capture, in the context of New Mexico’s state-mandated renewable energy plan.

As noted in the Los Alamos assessment, the system proposed for San Juan is also an energy-sucking black hole that would reduce the plant’s rated capacity from its original mark of 914 MW (gross) down to 601 MW (net). All in all, PNM anticipates that its customers would save $7.11 monthly after 2023 if the plant simply shuts down.

The Albuquerque Journal has the rundown on PNM’s plans to replace the wattage while cutting costs. That includes “920 megawatts of new generation and battery storage capacity, including a massive 300 MW solar farm, plus two smaller facilities for a total of 370 MW of solar power.”

Another 140 MW in wind power is also in the works, along with additional energy storage.

If you’re wondering why the plan doesn’t call for natural gas power plants, well, it does — but only one, a 280 MW gas peaker plant. That’s less than good news for natural gas stakeholders. Until recently, gas stakeholders could count on gas to replace coal power plant retirements without having to compete with renewables.

Carbon Capture Beyond Coal

As of this writing the days of the San Juan coal power plant appear to be numbered, but Enchant Energy does have some stakeholders on its side.

One of those is the local coal mine. Part of the rationale for keeping the San Juan power plant up and running is to keep the San Juan coal mine in operation.

As of 2017, the mine accounted for almost 300 jobs in the region and supported another 250 or so, in addition to chipping in property taxes to the local coffers.

Somewhat ironically, natural gas stakeholders also have an interested in keeping the coal power plant up and running.

If the carbon capture plan goes through, Enchant Energy plans to ship compressed CO2 from the plant through an existing pipeline to oil and gas fields in the Permian Basin.

The idea is to pump CO2 underground in order to ratchet up production at gas wells.

Talk about your decarbonization whack-a-mole!

Last week Enchant Energy buttressed its side of the case by announcing that it is signing Mitsubishi and two other leading firms on to the project.

For our money, though, the big carbon capture bucks would be better spent on projects that do not involve pulling copious amounts of fresh carbon out of the ground.

For example, our friends over at Argonne National Laboratory are developing a new high-efficiency catalyst that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air when triggered by sunlight.

Just saying.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to Argonne to get a sense of where and how the new carbon capture technology could be applied, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter.

Photo (cropped): Researchers develop a new catalyst for atmospheric carbon capture; “looking into the hard X-ray nanoprobe synchrotron chamber while measuring a response of an individual cuprous oxide particle to the exposure of carbon dioxide, water and light” by Tijana Rajh, Argonne National Laboratory.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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