WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, a longtime believer in "clean coal," is launching an ambitious and expensive plan to help the energy industry lock climate-changing gases from coal-fired power plants deep underground.
"If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal, it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future," the president said in February at a meeting with Republican and Democratic governors, including those from coal-mining states.
The idea, which has been around for years, is a key part of Obama's plan for building a diverse mix of power sources — including more nuclear energy, oil and natural gas drilling and renewable energy — while also putting the country on a path to an 80 percent reduction in emissions of heat-trapping gases by 2050.
On the face of it, making the nation's abundant supply of coal less polluting is alluring. Keeping coal in the energy equation preserves jobs, and a way of life.
However, some scientists, clean-energy advocates and electricity producers are questioning Obama's approach. Instead, some argue, the world should phase out coal, use natural gas more efficiently and put more emphasis on renewable energy.
Critics of the administration's coal strategy also say it will be too expensive to retrofit existing plants with new technology, capture the carbon dioxide, compress it and pipe it to underground storage. More coal also would be needed to run the capture equipment.
What's more, the process wouldn't reduce coal's other pollution problems: smog, mercury, and the toxic metals such as lead and selenium in coal ash. Continuing to rely on coal also would do nothing to end the environmental damage of mining the coal itself.
The issue has provoked strong feelings on all sides.
The Sierra Club has created a national advocacy organization — Beyond Coal — to end the nation's dependence on coal.
Bruce Nilles, the club's national coal campaign director, said that coal should be phased out by 2030. As for the government's goal of getting carbon capture and storage ready for wide use by then: "We're highly skeptical."
The environmental group favors an expansion of renewable energy and efficiency, including efficient uses of natural gas. Nilles pointed to Cornell University's new combined heat and power plant, which is fueled by natural gas. The plant generates the majority of Cornell's electricity, and the waste heat is used for campus heating. The new plant replaces a coal-fired one.
James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who warned about global warming two decades ago, says that coal should be phased out worldwide by 2030.
"If coal emissions are phased out rapidly — a tall order, but a feasible one — the climate problem is solvable," Hansen wrote in his book "Storms of My Grandchildren."
He questioned whether capture and safe storage of carbon emissions would ever be adopted on a large scale, "given its likely high cost, possible leakage of carbon dioxide from storage sites, and environmental damage from coal mining."
The Sierra Club has said it likes the president's overall energy plan, but disagrees with him on coal.
"While further research into carbon capture and sequestration technology may ultimately prove useful and economically feasible for existing facilities, we do not support building new coal plants using a costly and unproven technology that even the coal industry itself refuses to expend its own resources on to commercialize," the group's president, Carl Pope, said in a statement in response to Obama's announcement.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a scientist and Nobel Prize laureate, has said that he's looked at the science of carbon capture and storage and concluded that the technology challenges are large, but could be cracked with enough effort.
Chu also has said that wind and solar power can provide no more than 20 percent to 30 percent of U.S. energy until better electricity storage technology is invented, something the Department of Energy is also pursuing.
Heather Zichal, the White House deputy assistant for energy and climate change, said Obama wants to diversify the energy mix in a way that allows the country to meet its emissions reductions and energy independence goals. It also sees jobs potential.
"To the extent we can corner the market on developing new technology, it's an opportunity for us to create jobs in exporting this technology," Zichal said.
About 500 U.S. coal-burning power plants provide about 48 percent of the nation's electricity. The Midwest and South are big coal consumers, but other parts of the country, even the West, where hydropower is a bigger part of the energy mix, also generate electricity by burning coal.
The average U.S. coal plant is about 33 percent efficient, meaning that about a third of the coal it burns generates electricity and the rest is lost as heat. Coal-fired power plants are expensive to build, but last for decades. Some current plants date to the 1940s, and three-quarters of them were built before 1980.
The nation's largest user of coal, American Electric Power Co., has been storing some of the emissions since September in an experiment at its Mountaineer Plant in New Haven, W.Va. The Mountaineer plant, which burns pulverized coal, is the nation's third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide among U.S. coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Department of Energy provided $334 million, about half the cost to scale the project up. By 2015, the company plans to capture and store about 20 percent of the plant's emissions.
As the world grapples with curbing global warming, governments have vowed to reduce carbon emissions.
AEP can see that carbon constraints are coming, said spokesman Pat Hemlepp. It's working on a system to add to existing coal plants. "We have very big and low-cost generating plants in the East that are still a long way from retirement," he said.
The industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute and a lobby group, the Coal Utilization Research Council, recently updated its cost estimate on the needs for new coal technology and raised the government's share from $10.5 billion by 2025 to $20 billion by 2033. The CURC said that industry's share would be higher and would be partly in the form of tax incentives.
Revis James directed a study for the institute on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the lowest cost. James, who has a nuclear engineering and power plant background, said the study concluded that a mix of energy that included carbon capture and storage and new nuclear energy would be cheaper than doing without either and increasing natural gas use instead.
The study assumed that carbon capture and storage would be widely available and added to 20 percent of existing coal plants and all new ones. Plants without it eventually would have to be shut. The study also estimated that 6.5 percent of emissions reductions would come from gains in energy efficiency.
Other analysts see a larger role for efficiency and renewable energy that would lead to a phaseout of coal.
Higher costs for coal in the future also could change the cost calculations for carbon capture and storage, said Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, a group that advocates the end of fossil fuel use. High-quality and cheap coal in the U.S. is being used up, and so coal prices will be two to five times higher in 20 years, he said.
The Department of Energy so far has committed $4 billion for carbon capture and storage, and expects industry to spend $7 billion more. The federal share includes $1 billion for FutureGen, a planned coal gasification plant that would store carbon dioxide emissions. An industry alliance plans to spend $400 million to $600 million, but is looking for more partners to raise funds.
Experts say it would be cheaper to capture carbon at plants such as FutureGen, which turn coal into gas. Gasification plants, however, are more expensive to build. The U.S. has only two, and Duke Energy is building a third.
General Electric Energy has been developing gasification (or IGCC, integrated gasification combined cycle) for a long time because it's a cleaner way to use coal, with less smog and almost no mercury emissions, said Monte Atwell, general manager of GE's gasification division. Its future is uncertain, however, because of uncertainty about federal policy, he said.
One utility that's considering decreasing its use of coal is Portland General Electric Co., an owner of Oregon's only coal-fired power plant. State regulations require the company to install $500 million in equipment to reduce mercury and pollutants that cause smog.
The company expects that federal regulations will limit carbon emissions in the future, further adding to the plant's expenses, said Dave Robertson, PGE's vice president for public policy.
The company asked regulators to give it until 2020, when it will decide to shut the plant or switch to alternative fuels. In the meantime, it will add $40 million of smog and mercury-reducing equipment.
Carbon capture and storage might be an option by 2020, Robertson said, but "who knows how expensive it will be. So we could retrofit the plant, invest $500 million and wait and cross our fingers and hope that comes along. But we're not so sure how much good that would be for customers. The technology's not even developed yet. So it feels a lot like a gamble for us to wait for that."
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