New Rules for Power Plants Could Give Carbon Capture a Boost. Here’s How.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s plan to restrict, for the primary time, greenhouse gasoline emissions from present energy vegetation might hinge on the power of plant operators to seize carbon dioxide earlier than it’s pumped into the ambiance.

Yet not one of the nation’s 3,400 coal- and gas-fired energy vegetation are at the moment utilizing carbon seize know-how in a vital approach, elevating questions concerning the viability of that method.

In the approaching weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency is predicted to suggest strict new limits on emissions from coal- and pure gas-burning energy vegetation, that are accountable for about 25 % of the nation’s greenhouse gases. Those emissions are dangerously heating the planet.

While electrical utilities might pursue different methods to cut back air pollution, reminiscent of switching to wind or solar energy, specialists say capturing carbon dioxide and burying it underground could be one of many few choices for some massive coal and gasoline vegetation to maintain working whereas complying with the brand new guidelines.

Carbon seize know-how has been round for a long time, however electrical utilities have struggled with its excessive value and complexity. And whereas some insist that it’s a necessary instrument for fixing local weather change, main hurdles stay.

Carbon seize is already utilized by a variety of industrial services, reminiscent of ethanol and pure gasoline processing vegetation. There are additionally three coal vegetation in Maryland, Oklahoma and California that use chemical solvents to entice a tiny fraction of the carbon dioxide popping out of their smokestacks, which they promote to firms that make carbonated drinks, amongst different prospects.

But electrical utilities have discovered it troublesome to seize massive quantities of the carbon dioxide spewing out of coal- and gas-fired energy vegetation. While the know-how is pretty nicely understood, the worth tag could be steep, not least as a result of energy vegetation typically must divert a hefty fraction of their electrical energy to run the seize gadgets.

In the 2010s, a number of early tasks partially funded by the federal authorities had been deserted due to excessive prices. Only one coal plant within the United States ended up utilizing carbon seize on a massive scale: The $1 billion Petra Nova facility in Texas, accomplished in 2017. It offered the captured carbon dioxide to grease drillers that injected the gasoline into oil fields to extract extra crude. That facility shut down in 2020 when oil costs plummeted, though its house owners plan to restart it this yr. (There can be one coal plant in Canada that makes use of carbon seize.)

The greatest hurdle, specialists say, is that it is nearly all the time cheaper to let carbon dioxide waft into the ambiance than to seize it. Without authorities limits on air pollution or subsidies, utilities are unlikely to undergo the difficulty.

But final yr, that calculus started shifting. Under the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Congress elevated present tax credit that at the moment are price as much as $85 for each ton of carbon dioxide that polluters seize and bury underground, up from a most of $50 beforehand.

That has led to rising curiosity. The house owners of not less than six coal vegetation and 14 massive gasoline vegetation are conducting detailed engineering research to gauge the financial feasibility of carbon seize and storage. Calpine Corporation, one of many nation’s largest turbines of electrical energy from pure gasoline, is exploring plans to put in the know-how at 4 massive gasoline vegetation in Texas and California.

The federal tax credit score by itself will not be sufficient to cowl the price of capturing carbon from these gasoline vegetation, mentioned Caleb Stephenson, Calpine’s government vice chairman of business operations. The firm is exploring different potential sources of financing in order that it might bridge the hole and acquire expertise driving down prices for future carbon seize tasks.

“We’re optimistic about this know-how,” Mr. Stephenson mentioned, including that the electrical grids of the long run would wish some electrical energy supply that may run on demand in any respect hours to enhance intermittent sources like wind and solar energy. Carbon seize know-how might enable gas-fired vegetation to supply that service with out polluting.

The EPA cannot require that electrical utilities use any particular know-how to chop emissions. But, in principle, the company might set limits on greenhouse gases which might be so stringent that some coal or gasoline vegetation may need to put in carbon seize to fulfill them — or else shut down altogether.

Yet many utilities would possibly nonetheless draw back from carbon seize. One latest research by Rhodium Group, an vitality analysis agency, tried to mannequin the potential results of strict energy plant guidelines and new tax credit. The researchers estimated that solely about 20 gigawatts’ price of coal and gasoline vegetation would probably set up carbon seize by 2035 — a small fraction of the 700 gigawatts of coal and gasoline that exist at the moment.

Some utilities would possibly merely discover it cheaper to close down their massive coal and gasoline vegetation and get extra electrical energy from wind, photo voltaic and batteries, which had been additionally closely backed within the new local weather legislation. In different instances, it would show simpler to switch present gasoline vegetation in order that they’ll run completely on clear hydrogen gasoline that does not produce emissions.

“We simply do not see a lot of carbon seize being deployed within the energy sector,” mentioned John Larsen, a companion at Rhodium Group. “It’s not as a result of there are massive technical boundaries, however as a result of there’s a lot competitors from different sources.”

Of course, these projections could possibly be incorrect, Mr. Larsen mentioned. Carbon seize would possibly appear to be a extra engaging choice in elements of the nation the place it’s troublesome to construct new wind and solar energy due to a lack of energy traces or group opposition. Some promising choices for backing up renewable vitality, reminiscent of superior batteries, may not pan out. And some states like Wyoming have expressed curiosity in encouraging their utilities to make use of carbon seize know-how as a way to keep a market for fossil fuels like coal.

Carbon seize could be extra probably for use at industrial services, reminiscent of at hydrogen or ethanol vegetation, the place it’s typically technically simpler to seize carbon dioxide and there are fewer alternate options for slicing emissions, the Rhodium Group discovered.

Even if new laws and federal subsidies spur renewed curiosity in carbon seize, the know-how faces different obstacles.

Some critics fear that difficult new carbon seize tasks are susceptible to value overruns that would trigger electrical energy costs for shoppers to spike. The value of 1 proposed carbon seize undertaking at a massive coal plant in North Dakota, for occasion, has jumped to $1.45 billion, up from $1 billion 5 years in the past.

Some environmental teams additionally oppose carbon seize, arguing that it does not do sufficient to cut back standard air air pollution from energy vegetation and would do little to deal with leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gasoline, from pure gasoline wells and pipelines. Critics have additionally raised questions on whether or not the know-how really reduces emissions by as a lot as marketed, noting that Chevron’s carbon seize facility in Australia has fallen far in need of expectations.

“The observe document has not been good in any respect, and that is being charitable,” mentioned David Schlissel, an analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis who has criticized carbon seize tasks.

There are additionally some sensible hurdles: The United States at the moment has about 5,000 miles of pipelines to move carbon dioxide, however it could want greater than 30,000 miles if carbon seize know-how is broadly adopted, based on the Energy Department, and a few proposed carbon dioxide pipelines are already going through opposition. And whereas the United States has sufficient capability to retailer centuries’ price of emissions underground, the EPA has been gradual to approve permits for underground wells to retailer carbon dioxide.

Some energy firms query whether or not the know-how is prepared for prime time. Southern Company, an electrical utility that has been testing carbon seize for pure gasoline vegetation at a facility in Alabama, instructed the EPA final yr that the know-how wanted additional enhancements to deliver down prices and enhance reliability.

Others are optimistic.

“Back within the Nineteen Seventies, when the EPA set guidelines for sulfur air pollution, there have been solely three vegetation within the nation with sulfur scrubbers,” mentioned Jay Duffy, litigation director on the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group. “And by the tip of the last decade they had been widespread. You see this dynamic each time a new air pollution regulation comes alongside.”

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