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In the Face of Regulatory Uncertainty, “Clean Coal” Teeters as Solar, Wind Carry On

RP Siegel | Wednesday August 10th, 2011 | 0 Comments

This seems to be “clean coal” week on my beat.  “Clean coal” appears to be teetering on a knife edge between success and annihilation. Every day there seems to be a new report of a new plant either being approved or cancelled in a kind of carboniferous cotillion. Earlier this week, I wrote about the EPA  jumping into the breech to try and save the embryonic industry. I also mentioned the fact that GE has suspended a $100 million research agreement with University of Wyoming on clean coal while AEP shelved a $668 million commercial project.

Now here is another news item. An $85 million pilot project in northwestern Montana called the Big Sky Sequestration project just received the go-ahead. This public-private project is one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s seven regional carbon sequestration partnerships. A little over 20% over the funding, or $18 million came from private sponsors including Vecta Oil and Gas, SR2020 and Schlumberger.

This eight-year pilot-scale research project, which includes participants from five universities and three national laboratories, will attempt to answer some fundamental questions about the safety of storing CO2 in rock layers deep beneath the Earth’s surface without affecting surrounding rock formations or water reserves. The gas, which will be pumped in from a nearby CO2 reservoir, will be injected into Kevin Dome a 700 square mile geologic formation that underlies the region.

Projects like this should help to quantify the risks and improve our understanding of the kinds of issues involved with this technology. However, it should be noted that there will always be site-specific issues, so care should be taken not to overly generalize findings from one site to others.

As a seeming counterpoint to the move forward in Montana, AEP’s announcement of its intent to kill off a larger commercial project was largely based on uncertainty about what kind of regulation, if any, the US government intends to put forward regarding carbon emissions.

Despite the fact that the DOE was willing to foot half of the $668 million bill for the project, the company was reluctant to put its share it risk without knowing what the future of carbon regulation was going to be. According to AEP’s CEO Michael G. Morris, “It is impossible to gain regulatory approval to recover our share of the costs for validating and deploying the technology without federal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions already in place.”

There is certainly no lack of irony here, considering that many of the same Republican lawmakers who are very close friends with the coal and utility lobbies are the ones who resoundingly defeated any attempts at climate legislation, thereby spelling certain demise for projects such as this one.

The proposed AEP project had intended to pump 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year, some 1.5 miles beneath the Earth’s surface. A previous pilot project that was decommissioned this past May after two years of operation captured 50,000 metric tons of CO2, and stored 75% of that.

But while the absence of climate legislation that is so crucial to the economics of coal-related technologies such as this one has caused much of the work in progress to stall, other clean energy technologies such as solar and wind, continue to move forward aggressively.

Just this week, the US DOE signed a $967 million loan guarantee for the 290 megawatt Agua Caliente Solar Project in Yuma Arizona, utilizing thin film solar panels manufactured by First Solar. And a new bill was passed into law in Michigan this week, opening up the waters of Lake Michigan for offshore wind development.

There is clearly a process underway in which the most appropriate technologies are sorting themselves out. The fact that the less risky choices seem to be taking the lead suggests that perhaps the idea of sustainability is finding its way into more and more decisions.

[Image Credit: Solar Energy: SpoiltCat:Flickr Creative Commons]

 

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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