From the moment in 2009, when the EPA Administrator proclaimed that CO2 and other greenhouse gasses were warming the planet and endangering human health, the EPA had the legal obligation to cut CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act.
At that time, CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants were the largest source of CO2 emissions, and the EPA issued regulations to make it impossible to build new coal-fired power plants.
Even so, existing coal-fired power plants remain the largest source of CO2 emissions. To fulfill its obligations under the Clean Air Act and avoid lawsuits from environmental organizations (such as the Natural Resource Defense Council) to force it to do so, the EPA is likely to target existing coal-fired power plants in 2013.
This is a more difficult challenge. Establishing a carbon tax would be the most direct approach, but taxation authority rests with Congress. Perhaps the onus could be placed on states to either tax carbon or limit CO2 emissions, though this too might collide with the Constitution. Of course, this administration hasn’t been reluctant to maneuver around that document.
The other problem with trying to force existing coal-fired power plants to cut CO2 emissions is that the technology doesn’t yet exist for capturing CO2 and then disposing of it in a way that it won’t reenter the atmosphere. The process is referred to as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).
Each of the methods for capturing CO2 have been tried in small, experimental installations – none have been proven to work at a scale that would actually capture significant amounts of CO2 from a large coal-fired power plant.
Equally important, these experiments have demonstrated it would be necessary to derate any coal-fired power plant retrofitted to capture CO2. Retrofitted plants would have to be derated by 30 to 40 percent.
(Derating means that a power plant produces less electricity for transmission to customers.)
The reason for this is that a third of the power from the plant would be used in the processes required for capturing CO2 and compressing it to make it ready for transporting it to where it might be sequestered.
These parasitic loads consume the power that would have been available for transmission and sale to customers.
Future Gen, originally to demonstrate a so-called clean-coal IGCC power plant, was cancelled due to its high cost at the end of the Bush administration but has been reinstated by the Obama administration … same name, but different objective and still with high cost.
Instead of building the expensive IGCC plant, the project is to utilize a coal-fired power plant that will burn pulverized coal in pure oxygen. This is supposed to produce a pure stream of CO2 that can be captured and compressed and then transported to a site in Morgan County, Illinois, where the CO2 would be sequestered.
There are a few other experimental processes being tried for capturing CO2, but none have been built to a scale that proves their viability. Some trials have been abandoned.
While the immediate objective might be to capture CO2 from coal-fired power plants, it’s worth mentioning that it’s even more difficult to extract CO2 from natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants because the stream of CO2 gas is considerably thinner. Natural gas, under the Clean Air Act, will be the legally required next target of the EPA.
Capturing CO2 is only part of the problem. Once captured, the compressed CO2, in liquid form, must be transported to some location where it can be sequestered underground, in solutions or in spaces where the CO2 can never find its way into the atmosphere.
There have been relatively small quantities of CO2 injected underground for storage by Norway, Algeria, and Canada. Some has been used for enhanced oil recovery. None of these instances have been sufficient to demonstrate the ability to store very large quantities of CO2 underground.
The European Union, which has had the most aggressive program for cutting CO2 emissions, has abandoned all but two or three of its experimental efforts at CCS.
As can be seen, CCS is experimental and very expensive. It requires derating power plants which would require new investments in new power plants; and there is little proof that CO2 can be stored underground forever.
It’s against this background that the EPA will attempt to force the adoption of CCS.
Because of the daunting problems associated with CCS, it’s possible the EPA will issue regulations requiring the cutting of CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, putting the onus on utilities to prove why they can’t reasonably do so, and indirectly attempt to force utilities to close existing coal-fired power plants.
It will be interesting to see whether the large cost of carbon capture can be justified economically, after accounting for the reduced income from a power plant having reduced output. The better economic solution might be to close the coal-fired power plant and build a new NGCC power plant.
Any solution will cost money, and rate payers will bear the burden.
EPA will, most likely, get its way, no matter what it means for Americans.
Read more of Donn’s columns at his blog, Power For USA.