Carbon-capture technology works, but cost is still prohibitive
Carbon-capture technology is seen as key to reducing emissions from natural gas-fired power plants. Yet carbon capture is expensive, and developers largely have rejected using it in new or retrofitted plants.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Support for this project
This series was supported by a Perry and Alicia O’Brien Fellowship at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. The fellowship enabled Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton to spend the academic year at Marquette reporting on this project and working with students from the Diederich College of Communications.
For 14 years, an electric-power plant in Massachusetts used a chemical solvent process to capture carbon dioxide released from the combustion of natural gas.
As the U.S. enters a new era of power generation shaped by abundant supplies of natural gas, this carbon-capture technology holds the potential for dramatically lowering emissions from natural gas and helping achieve President Obama’s midcentury target of a more than 80 percent reduction of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions.
Carbon capture, particularly in coal-fired plants, has had a troubled history in this country and elsewhere. But the Bellingham, Mass., natural-gas plant was a success story.
“I can say that we were extremely pleased with the way the technology worked, and the reliability of the plant,“ said Satish Reddy, a vice president of Fluor Corp., which operated the carbon-capture process there until 2005.
Currently, producing power from natural gas generates roughly half the carbon emissions of a coal-fired power plant. When coupled with carbon-capture technology, the Bellingham plant experience indicates, a natural-gas power plant could generate about 5 percent of the carbon emissions of a coal plant.
Still, developers largely have spurned carbon capture in new or retrofitted natural gas plants.
That’s because the process is expensive and requires pipelines to carry the carbon dioxide to storage sites, such as oil fields, where it can be pumped underground to help boost production.
Studies indicate that carbon capture would increase the cost of building and operating a natural-gas plant by 30 to 70 percent, according to Edward Rubin, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who researches the technology.
So far, there have not been enough financial incentives to spur commercial-scale use of the technology in natural-gas power plants, and there’s been little regulatory pressure.
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed that all new coal power plants be equipped with carbon-capture technology. But the agency proposed to exempt natural-gas plants from these requirements.
EPA officials say it is uncertain whether carbon technology is “technically feasible” for natural-gas plants.
Scientists involved in developing the low-carbon technology question the EPA’s assertion. “You (EPA officials) better come out in the light, and see what’s going on in the industry,” said Reddy.
During the 14 years of operations at the Massachusetts plant, carbon-capture technology removed carbon dioxide from 40 megawatts of a 320-megawatt plant. That carbon dioxide was then sold to the beverage industry.
The capture technology was shut down after the expiration of some tax credits that helped make it profitable, Reddy said.
Since then, Summit Power, a Bellevue-based energy developer, has been one of the companies trying to build a natural-gas power plant with carbon capture.
“We should be compared against other low-carbon energy sources. And if you do that, you would be surprised how competitive we could be,” said Sasha Mackler, a Summit vice president.
Last year, Summit made an unsuccessful bid to persuade the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to support development of a carbon capture plant. That plant would have sold the carbon emissions to oil companies, which would inject them into aging oil fields to boost crude production.
The commission rejected the proposal, citing costs and the lack of demand in the state for another power plant that would operate most of the time, rather than just cranking up when demand peaks.
Summit Power is now hoping to develop a natural-gas plant with capture technology in other states. One possibility is California, where state regulations that limit carbon emissions could give a significant boost to a project.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org