EPRI's Courtright discusses economic, tech challenges facing carbon capture

Despite the Department of Energy's decision to not move forward with FutureGen--a large-scale carbon capture and sequestration project--several smaller projects are being developed throughout the country to advance CCS technology. There are still many unanswered questions relating to this technology, however. During today's OnPoint, Hank Courtright, vice president of the Electric Power Research Institute, discusses challenges facing the electric power sector relating to CCS technology. He addresses public acceptance issues, public education, safety and security concerns, and the economics of CCS projects. Courtright also talks about new EPRI research testing the viability of chilled ammonia to capture carbon dioxide.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Hank Courtright, senior president of the Electric Power Research Institute. Hank, thanks for coming on the show.

Hank Courtright: Hello, Monica, great to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Hank, the Edison Foundation is conducting a forum to discuss the importance of carbon capture and sequestration and challenges facing this technology as we move forward. Let's start at the core of this discussion. Why is CCS technologies so important for the future of the electric industry?

Hank Courtright: In order to capture and remove the carbon you're going to need to do it from coal and possibly from natural gas. And right now in the U.S. coal comprises about 50 percent of our electricity generation and fuel source. So, going forward, if we want to maintain coal as a resource both from an economic view and jobs and many other aspects, we need to be able to capture that carbon, get it out of the power process, and be able to safely store it.

Monica Trauzzi: And this meeting is happening in the shadows of the Department of Energy deciding to cancel its plans to move forward with the FutureGen project, and that was this large-scale plan to create this carbon capture and sequestration coal-fired power plant. How do you think DOE's decision impacts the future of the development of CCS?

Hank Courtright: Well, it may just be a temporary interim stopping point and I think it will pick back up again. What they've announced is that they intend to provide the money that was set aside for FutureGen to fund other capture and storage projects and do it at the backend of other commercially based projects. So, I think after the decisions are cleaned up, the rules written out, and the solicitations put out it should pick up, I think, in the pace of devoting those funds into capture and storage real work.

Monica Trauzzi: And you think approaching it in these like smaller projects is more effective than doing this one bigger project?

Hank Courtright: Well, there was a lot to be learned from FutureGen too and I think that you can learn from both approaches. FutureGen had some things that would be learned from the gasification process, that we may not get as much from the new approach. But then the new approach may allow more projects to be funded. So, I think there's some give and take. There's no probably preferred path. At least there's an indication that those funds will be put into research work, which is important.

Monica Trauzzi: So as far as the RD&D of CCS technology, is there a specific timeline that we really need to stick to in order to effectively reduce the emissions of power plants? And then, on the flipside of that, what timeline is realistic?

Hank Courtright: Well, we've set our target, at the Electric Power Research Institute in working with electricity industry, at 2020. We would like to see CCS commercially available by 2020. And to do that, if you put yourself today in 2008, we need a number of demonstration projects that would be built. We might need three to five years to build those. You want to capture and store and verify the safe storage of CO2 for three to five years. So you couple those on and then you begin to get into designs of new plants, there's another two to three years. So, we have to be on a pretty aggressive path between now and 2020 to make that.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned safe storage. Some people are concerned about where the carbon goes after it's been captured. Is that a concern for you and how much work needs to be done on that front? You know, there have been talks about once it gets into the ground it could have impacts on the communities surrounding those plants. So is that a concern?

Hank Courtright: Well, I think the main thing is the scientific side has shown that you can put CO2 into certain formations and that's the important part. You have to put it in the right type of formations in the right process. And that once it's down and very deep in the earth it will tend to stay where it's put due to it, over time, will tend to mineralize into the rock formations down there. And if you pick the right locations and do the right monitoring we think it's very safe.

Monica Trauzzi: No concerns of seismic shifts and ...

Hank Courtright: That's all picking the right sites. So you have to make sure you're picking sites that don't have faults, don't have abandoned wells, things like that. So, it's an important process to do it properly and to document those analyses completely.

Monica Trauzzi: And obviously public acceptance is a big issue here and the NIMBY or NUMBY, not under my backyard issue, in terms of just where the carbon is being sequestered, what impact it's going to have like we were just saying. How big of a concern is public acceptance moving forward?

Hank Courtright: I think it's a major concern. I think what you have to have is a public understanding of the confidence of the people doing it right, of the government overseeing those processes and the regulations, both at the federal and state and the local level too. And that you get companies that are doing this that have a track record and some experience with it and that should build up over time. And I think if you can show those things you can build public confidence. And you'll have to look at what are some of the options? There is always some type of risk. But if you don't capture the carbon from coal or natural gas, which has about half the CO2 of coal, then you're dealing with another issue of global warming. So, it's a trade-off of some risks and we think it's a viable trade-off to do that.

Monica Trauzzi: And the majority of the public doesn't even know what CCS is. A recent study showed that only 5 percent understood and had heard of that technology. So how much education has to go into this? How big of a wedge should public education play?

Hank Courtright: Yeah, I'm not surprised by that number and it's not a topic that you talk around the dinner table.

Monica Trauzzi: No, I don't.

Hank Courtright: And so I think what is needed is both from the government, the utilities, and local government, and I think that's one of the things that DOE has a regional partnership on testing sequestration, is involving the local government and local institutions, local universities to help in that education process. So it has to get local, which I think is very important so people can discuss it, understand it. Especially where the sites might be where you do the storage.

Monica Trauzzi: Until we have this technology developed, you were saying 2020 as a reach year, how should we be approaching the construction of new power plants?

Hank Courtright: Well, we've laid out what we call our full portfolio of approaches to reduce CO2 from the electric sector. One, you want to take the full advantage of energy efficiency and try and save as much energy as you can. Second, you want to maximize the availability of renewable energy sources, so deploy as much wind or solar where it's practical and economical. And that's the key issue right now, is driving the economics. And then I think the key is trying to build the larger central station plants. Nuclear we will not probably see until about 2017, 2018, of those plants coming online. So you have a time period that a lot of people think will fill this void. And the concern on gas is the price of gas for electricity generation. So, it has to have that balance between gas and coal, I think, in today's market.

Monica Trauzzi: And in addition to that any sort of research that goes into carbon capture and sequestration technology is expensive.

Hank Courtright: Right.

Monica Trauzzi: It's just expensive to do the research, the development. Is the consumer going to see this expense on the backend? Is the consumer ultimately going to see more expensive utility bills? And are they going to be the ones to bear the burden?

Hank Courtright: Well, then it goes back to that full portfolio. If we can keep all the options in place and have them to capture carbon, you can keep coal available, you can keep natural gas, build new nuclear, new renewables. That should keep the price of electricity affordable. It will have some increase, but compared to the issue that if we have to rely very heavily on natural gas, especially when it might be imported in the form of LNG, that could drive electricity prices up. And that's the concern, is don't take any options off the table. And, if you're building a new coal plant now, you may want to consider how you can possibly modify that plant later and build some of those factors into that design for right now.

Monica Trauzzi: Last year DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory determined that the chilled ammonia process used to capture emissions from coal-fired power plants did not show much of an improvement over current processes. And now EPRI, along with others, is testing the viability of this process in Wisconsin. So talk a little bit about this test and what you guys are hoping to do there.

Hank Courtright: Yeah, our early tests showed it could substantially reduce the cost of capturing CO2 out of coal in power plants. So what we've done, we've done some bench scale testing initially. That verified what we think was the capture rate and the economics. And so now we've built a scaled project. This is about 2 megawatts. It's fairly small in size, but it is a six-story structure, okay? And it captures a portion of the flue gas off a plant of We Energies in Wisconsin. And what we do is then we'll be testing various approaches using chilled ammonia to remove the CO2 safely from that gas. And we won't be injecting or storing this CO2 in this test. We will be essentially just re-venting it at some point. But the point will be is to prove the economics and the technical viability of the process. I know we're working with both We Energies and Alstom, who's the equipment manufacturer. And Alstom is doing some other projects in other parts of the world to advance this technology too.

Monica Trauzzi: Obviously, investment is going to play a major role in the future success of CCS. How should we be guiding utility investment and what kind of legislative framework should exist in order to sort of drive the utilities to invest in this technology and to invest in cleaner portfolios?

Hank Courtright: Yeah, what you have is investing in this kind of technology requires reduction of risk, because you're in the marketplace for money and capital to build those plants. So what you need is a combination of some type of government support and incentive for the first few plants that go in to reduce that risk, as well as those companies that are regulated by state commissions, the understanding and support to be able to cover those costs and get a fair return on those costs. We think we will have a lot of successes. We will probably have a few failures and that happens in any new technologies. And managing that risk and spreading it as far as we can is important. That's where the government can help do that.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We're going to end it right there on that note. Thanks for coming on the show.

Hank Courtright: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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