Friday, April 23, 2010

Carbon Capture and Storage


By Doug Doerrfeld

Kentucky officials are betting our future on an unproven technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or carbon sequestration. It’s a misguided gamble that takes us down an expensive path when there are clearly better options.

No doubt there is a problem. Kentucky coal burning power plants produce about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. And though there are modest efforts to reduce this amount, Kentucky’s electricity use is expected to grow which adds to the problem unless we turn down a different path.

Politicians and utilities are betting on geological sequestration – using porous rock, and a lot of it, deep under our land as the place to dispose of this waste. But after years of experiments, we still have no proof that carbon capture and sequestration will work on the scale necessary, and at a cost that’s affordable. It’s the wrong solution.

The sheer volume of carbon dioxide that we produce in Kentucky requires a scale that goes way beyond any feasible options. To dispose of this much waste would result in the creation of the largest toxic waste distribution and disposal system ever conceived. It will take, literally, the whole state to provide storage capacity that even then might not be enough, and then only for a limited number of years. But state officials have crafted a program that, either through outright seizure or condemnation, gives the coal industry access to almost all deep rock strata under the state.

The speculation until recently was that it would take a 359-square-mile area to store carbon waste from a 500-mega-watt (MW) power plant. But that formula was shattered with research from a recent peer-reviewed article in the Journal of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Professors Michael and Christine Ehlig-Economides concluded that geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide is “a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of carbon dioxide emissions.”

“Published reports on the potential for sequestration fail to address the necessity of storing carbon dioxide in a closed system," wrote Professors Ehlig-Economides. "Our calculations suggest that the volume of liquid or supercritical carbon dioxide to be disposed cannot exceed more than about 1 percent of pore space. This will require from five to 20 times more underground reservoir volume than has been envisioned by many, including federal government laboratories.” By their projections, a small 500 MW plant's underground carbon dioxide reservoir would need to be the size of the state of Vermont to work.

Kentucky has about 16,510 MW of coal-burning capacity and officials want to add more. That’s just one of the problems with the sequestering side of the plan.

Carbon capture technologies built into a new power plant would increase the fuel needs of such plants by 25-40 percent. In other words, it would take a third more coal to produce the same amount of electricity. The overall energy costs of new coal-burning plants equipped with CCS will jump 30-90 percent. Applying CCS to existing plants or plants far from a storage location will be even more expensive, elevating costs by 50-300 percent.

A 2008 federal Government Accountability Office report concluded that the sheer energy cost of CCS outweighs any potential benefit. Rodney Andrews, executive director at University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, predicts CCS electricity cost increases of 60-200 percent.

The only way utilities will find CCS to be affordable is to get taxpayers, and eventually their customers, to foot the bill. The Kentucky General Assembly has been more than willing to go along with this scheme, introducing several proposals to provide subsidies for sequestration experiments – and exempting corporations from any permanent liability for their wastes.

We need to stop our obsession with coal and move toward energy efficient power such as solar, wind, biomass and the wide variety of available and developing non-fossil fuel energy options. This is where our future economy needs to be headed.

But in Kentucky, some officials don’t see beyond coal.

“For many of us who realize only too plainly the very real dangers and difficulties associated with sequestration, over-inflated claims for CCS have become the last refuge of the energy scoundrel. There is no need to research this subject any longer,” the Ehlig-Economides concluded. “Let's try something else."

I agree. It’s past time to get started.
Doerrfeld is a member of the Executive Committee of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Kentucky Forum. 4/10


Jem Cooper said...

I read the paper by Economides that you are talking about. The erroneous basis for his calculations is that no wells are drilled to remove the ground water displaced by the stored carbon dioxide "carbon dioxide sequestration is not generally envisioned to be associated with any production of underground fluids,"

His paper is proof, if proof were needed, that relief wells will be required for many geological structures. Others have discussed the issues that these relief wells might raise. See

It may well be true that windmills and nuclear are cheaper ways to generate electricity than coal with carbon capture, and energy saving often pays for itself if you can persuade people to do it. But when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration stops rising the oceans will continue to absorb only 6% of today's emissions so no matter how much energy we save or how many windmills we build if we burn more carbon than that we need to capture it to stop global warming. Refer

It is only fair that all those (and only those) who burn fossil fuel should contribute to the cost of capturing the carbon dioxide produced. My proposal would be that fuel producers would place contracts for the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide equivalent to an increasing proportion of the carbon in the fuel they produce. Inevitably the cost would be passed on to the consumer but if capture cost say $75/tonne of carbon dioxide, this would add only $32/barrel of oil, which is modest compared to price movements in recent years.

Raising the cost of using fossil fuel would drive energy saving, renewables and nuclear in just the same way as a tax or a cap but without the intractable problems of agreeing emission limits for every sovereign nation. See my article at