Coal Tattoo

Some straight talk on CCS from AEP

Coal industry folks and their political supporters sometimes make “clean coal” (whatever that is) and the capture of coal’s greenhouse gas emissions sound pretty easy. Take West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, for instance, who in announcing American Electric Power’s plans for a coal gasification plant in Mason County (one without carbon capture and storage technology, yet) said:

As one of the first commercial scale coal gasification projects, this proposed plant will allow us to lead the nation in the development of clean coal technology for power generation. Plus, coal gasification technology offers future opportunities to produce clean liquid fuels and chemical feedstock for other industries.

IGCC technology allows us to continue using our state’s coal resources in an environmentally responsible way. With IGCC, we’ll have a cleaner environment. An IGCC power plant efficiently reduces and removes sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and mercury from plant emissions. IGCC plants offer opportunity for more efficient, less costly carbon capture for disposal in deep geologic formations.

Well, that plant is kind of on the back burner, at least for now — one sign of how all of this stuff isn’t as easy as the politicians and industry PR agents make it sound.  But one thing AEP has begun to do more of is provide some straight talk about the huge hurdles ahead if the coal industry is going to remain viable in a carbon-constrained world.

Take the testimony yesterday to a House committee by Gary O. Spitznogle, AEP’s manager of IGCC and CCS Engineering. Among other things, Spitznolge declared:

The Congress and indeed all Americans must come to recognize the gigantic undertaking and significant sacrifices that this enterprise is likely to require. It is unrealistic to assume, and wrong to argue, that the market will magically respond simply by the imposition of stringent CO2 controls on our economy.


In his testimony, Spitznogle says that AEP thinks that “2020 is the earliest date when a reliable commercial-scale carbon capture system will be available to be deployed across the industry.”

But his testimony, to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, also spells out pretty clearly the challenges ahead for the coal industry and coal-fired utilities …

First, consider the much-touted CCS test project at AEP’s Mountaineer Power Plant in New Haven, W.Va. AEP is hoping the project works, because it uses a Chilled Ammonia Process to capture the CO2 emissions. This technology, the industry hopes, is not as costly as other processes and doesn’t suck up so much of a plant’s power.

But, Spitznogle  explains, the test project currently is set up on a 20-megawatt scale on the 1,300-megawatt Mountaineer Plant. If it works well, then AEP hopes after about five years to expand to a separate, 230-MW unit at the same site. That’s still a small percentage of the entire plant’s CO2 emissions.

Now, what are the other challenges?

Well, as Spitznogle explained, other CCS technology, such as that using monoethanolamine (MEA), is expected to increase the cost of electricity by 60 to 70 percent. Even the newer Chilled Ammonia system “will require significant amounts of energy and therefore result in higher costs for coal-fueled electricity,” he said.

If the Chilled Ammonia doesn’t work, though, AEP believes utilities will have little choice but to retrofit their existing fleets of plants with MEA technology. Not a good, option, he says:

The energy consumed by this conventional technology, at high capture levels, would result in the loss of approximately one third of a generating unit’s power output. This means a typical 600 MW generating station would be able to deliver only 400 MW of electricity to the grid after being retrofit with current CCS technology.

In addition, physical placement of CCS technology “will be a constraint at many existing power stations,” AEP believes:

As a rule of thumb, the capture system, on a per-megawatt basis, will require a real estate footprint equivalent to the existing generating plant.  In other words, it is likely that the installation of a system to treat the entire plant flue gas output would double the land space occupied. Some plants can accommodate this requirement, but many plants cannot. Consequently, companies may be able to deploy CO2 capture systems on only a portion of a plant’s output due to siting constraints.

And where would the CO2 go? Well, the supply of CO2 from the power generation industry will quickly overwhelm the demand for Enhanced Oil Recovery, or EOR, where the CO2 is used to increase recover of oil and gas drilling operations.

In short order, CO2 will have to be permanently sequestered or stored in saline formations located many thousands of feet below the surface. The extent of available saline formations, injection pressure limitations, and ultimate capacity are all factors that are currently the subject of intense study.

What’s the bottom line?

… The current state of CCS technology is not yet ready for wide-scale and large CO2 capture mandates.  Continued researcher, development and demonstration must be supported and is essential to make CCS technologies a reality.

Simply put, our nation cannot wait a decade or longer to begin the development and commercialization of advanced coal generation and carbon capture and sequestration technologies.