A mountain to climb

The coal industry is trying to reinvent itself by capturing and burying carbon emissions deep underground. But it’s proving a struggle
October 21, 2009
ABOVE: over 470 Appalachian mountains have been decapitated in the hunt for coal

They don’t appear to like mountains in the “mountain state” of West Virginia. Yeager airport in Charleston, the state’s capital, sits atop what was once a peak and is now more of a plateau. Since the airport was built in 1947, more than 470 mountains have been decapitated in Appalachia, mostly in West Virginia and Kentucky. Here, geology never stood a chance against enterprise.

The mountains were disfigured in the hunt for coal, which is still used to generate almost half of America’s power. In the relatively impoverished state of West Virginia coal is responsible for 40,000 jobs and more than 60 per cent of its business taxes. Beneath the mountains, though, the people who once prospected for coal are trying to find something they believe is just as valuable: sealed holes in the ground.

I went there to visit the giant Mountaineer plant, which lies on the banks of the Ohio river. Here a potentially revolutionary experiment to create “clean coal” is about to start. A few other sites across the world are already engaged in carbon capture and storage: the process of capturing, compressing and burying the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by fossil fuels before it enters the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. The Mountaineer scheme aims to be the first to capture the emissions of a fully operational coal plant.

Projects such as this one could mean life or death for the global coal industry. Many politicians think that the agreement to be hammered out at the Copenhagen summit should phase out fossil fuels. But the coal industry, and even some environmentalists, argue for caps on carbon emissions combined with financial incentives to develop clean coal.

The bidding for government subsidies has already started. American Electric Power (AEP), the company behind the West Virginia pilot, has asked for $330m (£208m) in federal funds to scale up its scheme. The US has set aside $3.4bn for such projects, the EU slightly more in the form of credits. The British government will be adding an estimated 2 per cent to electricity bills to fund up to four clean coal projects. It has signed up to a G8 commitment to have 20 carbon capture and storage plants around the world by 2020, and a competition is underway to win funding for the first of them. E.ON, Scottish Power and a consortium including German company RWE (which owns nPower) are in the running, with £90m allocated just to help the companies prepare bids. The winner will get money from both the government and the EU. One of E.ON’s plans was to build a “clean coal ready” unit at its plant in Kingsnorth, Kent. This was the site of violent confrontations in 2008 between activists and police, when protestors scaled a chimney. Greenpeace activists have disrupted coal deliveries since. E.ON has now “deferred” its plans, citing a drop in demand due to the global recession, but maintains a commitment to developing clean coal. RWE, meanwhile, is experimenting with carbon capture at its Didcot power station, and hopes to turn its Aberthaw site in south Wales into the first facility in Britain to bury CO2 from an existing plant.

Opponents—including Al Gore, who has founded a new group called the “reality coalition” to battle clean coal—argue that billions could be wasted on a technology that may not work. The coal industry’s retort is that, untested or not, this is the only realistic way of reducing emissions, especially in countries such as China and India which are largely dependent on coal. The stakes at Mountaineer could not be higher.

The Mountaineer plant generates enough electricity to power a small city. As it does so it burns more than 9,000 tonnes of coal a day—producing 8m tonnes of CO2 a year, the equivalent to the emissions of around 3m cars. Hundreds of millions have been spent to “retro-fit” the plant to limit pollution from sulphur or particulates. Now what looks like a giant laboratory is being bolted on to remove the greatest pollutant: carbon dioxide. Pipes siphon smoke from the chimney and carry it into a maze of tanks filled with ammonia. There the gas is chilled and the CO2 separated and condensed into liquid form (see box, below). More pipes run from the tanks to giant wellheads, where the gas will be pumped 1.5 miles underground.

AEP has recruited international companies to help with the pilot. The French engineering group Alstom is applying its “chilled ammonia” technology. It is one of several techniques used to separate out and purify the CO2 from the plant’s emissions. Local company Battelle has the trickier task of finding a way to pump the gas underground so it will never resurface; RWE is also investing in this $120m scheme.

The Mountaineer project, which started in 2002, has only just begun to capture and bury CO2. It will take years to find out whether it can keep it underground. Initially the pilot will “clean” the emissions from 20mw of the plant’s 1,300mw of output. That involves burying around 100,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. By 2015, AEP hopes to bury closer to 2m tonnes, or 300mw of output. If, that is, it can find the space to store it.

For now, the focus is on trying to get the pilot working. Over the din of the construction work, the men behind the project talk with confidence about their technology. “It’s the first of its kind of this size in the world,” says Alstom’s vice president of technology, Bob Hilton. In the mid-1970s, Alstom pioneered technology to remove sulphur dioxide—a cause of acid rain—from the emissions of coal plants like Mountaineer. But CO2 removal is a far more complex endeavour because of its scale. Coal contains up to 70 times more carbon than it does sulphur, and capturing it takes vast amounts of electricity, so the plant has to burn 20 per cent more coal to power the process. Hilton is undeterred: “That’s why we’re doing the prototype, we’ll improve energy consumption as we build it.”

But then there’s burial, which is still more technically challenging. US coal plants emit more than 2.1bn tonnes of CO2 a year. Compressed for burial, that would represent around 2.73 trillion litres a year: enough to cover Britain with 1.2cm of CO2 every year. Although Battelle has previously failed to find a way of storing nuclear waste underground, its researchers believe that clean coal will be different. Five wells are being drilled to inject and then monitor the CO2 underground, explains Neeraj Gupta, Battelle’s lead researcher on this project. A slight man, he cuts an almost forlorn figure as he walks around his giant bore, checking progress.

The plan is for the condensed CO2 to be pumped into sealed salt-water aquifers—according to the intergovernmental panel on climate change the best hope for large-scale storage, but also the least researched. Once the gas is there its movement needs to be monitored, not least to check it hasn’t escaped. Gupta admits the monitoring technologies are untried and that it may not be possible to track the gas. “Can you account for where the CO2 is going? Should we even expect that we can account for all the CO2? I don’t think so.” But he is meant to ensure it isn’t going to “unwanted places”: freshwater, higher rock formations or the air around us.

To make projects like AEP’s work, saline aquifers would have to be able to store underground perhaps hundreds of millions of tonnes of the gas in the long term. To store this much, according to Gupta, each plant would need dozens of wells, pipelines and, most importantly, political support. These would take at least ten years to complete. He insists that we know it can be done, but: “What we don’t know is where it can or cannot be done.”

Such doubts have fuelled opposition to clean coal. A vocal coalition including US senators, British MPs and green groups are fighting what they see as a dangerous diversion. Coal power plants contribute almost a third of total US carbon emissions. Per kilowatt of electricity produced, it is the dirtiest power there is. And while clean coal pilots are implemented, and storage options and leakage evaluated, old coal plants will remain open and new ones will be built. The green groups argue we should not squander time and money on an unproven technology.

Perhaps in answer, Mountaineer’s backers are putting their own money into the pilot. An hour or so north of the plant is the city of Columbus, Ohio. Battelle and AEP are both based here. The latter is the largest coal utility in the US and its chairman, Mike Morris, is the philosopher-king of clean coal.

I interviewed Morris in his company’s private television studio. Well bronzed for March, he was an animated subject, flitting from grand philosophising to brusque business sense. He said support for the project is not so much a subsidy as “a societal decision.” He argues that, in comparison to the unknown cost of climate change, investment in clean coal is a small cost, even if it runs to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Cleaning 20mw of electricity—enough to power between 10,000 and 20,000 homes—will cost around $130m, Morris says. For the 300mw planned at Mountaineer it could run to around $500m in upfront investment. On those numbers, repeating the feat for the nation’s coal plants would cost in excess of $500bn. Yet despite the size of the venture, Morris hopes to be fitting the technology to plants around the country in six years. “That’s more rapidly than most of my colleagues believe this technology would be deployable,” he admits. It’s also earlier than many think it could be profitable. To address that, Morris wants the government to step in. Clean coal, he believes, could even provide a way out of the recession: “These are projects that are, in today’s phraseology, shovel ready.” In Britain, the government has estimated that developing clean coal could create up to 50,000 jobs.

The shovelling may, however, lead to unexpected risks. Pure CO2 is heavier than air. If it leaks suddenly in large quantities it can fill up valleys or buildings, causing suffocation. In 1986, a leak from a natural reserve at the bottom of a lake killed 1,700 people in Cameroon. That exact incident could not be repeated in West Virginia, as AEP is storing the gas deep underground. But there is far more of it and a sudden unexpected leakage could have a greater impact.

The risks alarm scientists like Columbia University’s Klaus Lackner, one of the world’s leading experts in clean coal. German-born Lackner emigrated to the US in 1983 to work at Los Alamos labs, once home to the Manhattan project. He sees the drive to take CO2 out of emissions as a vital mission for the 21st century. But clean coal, Lackner explains, carries several dangers. Pressure could build up underground causing catastrophic leaks; rock formations may be eroded causing ground-level changes; salt water may be forced up into freshwater or, more likely, the gas could just escape over time, rendering the process pointless. All, he says, might be avoided if it is done in the right way and in the right places. He doesn’t yet know on what scale or at what speed that would be.

The key for Lackner is proper regulation. He admits that this could add major costs and thinks that coal plants may not always be the right place to try and remove CO2. Lackner suggests using radioactive carbon isotopes to track the movement of the gas below the surface. But so far AEP and government regulators at Mountaineer have only used computer modelling to predict the movement of the gas.

The risk of disaster is real and potentially costly: Morris is lobbying to limit his company’s liability. Like nuclear energy at its inception, he thinks, clean coal needs state support not just to build the plant but to shoulder responsibility. “If there were a Chernobyl-like event at one of our nuclear stations, God forbid,” he says, “the taxpayer would come in to address that, and I suspect that is the same kind of thing you’d do here.”

Comparisons to a nuclear disaster are unlikely to reassure residents of Racine, the town just across the river from the plant. Guy Rose’s family moved here shortly after the civil war and has farmed the land ever since. In winter, he used snow to make ice creams, but lately AEP has told locals not to, due to the pollution. “Now I’m worried about pollution underground as well as in the air,” he says. He’s concerned about the water supply, too. “I’ve never seen any clean coal, and I’ve been around,” he adds. Others, like Elisa Young who runs another family farm, agree. To her the plan to bury CO2 under her land amounts to “chemical trespassing.”

It is this kind of objection that could threaten the industry’s progress. In nearby Greenville, Ohio, Battelle has abandoned a project to bury CO2 from an ethanol power plant, following protests by locals and politicians fearing earthquakes, water pollution or worse. So-called “Numbys” (not under my backyard) are popping up almost anywhere a clean coal plant is proposed. In March, a Dutch council—backed by residents—objected to Shell’s attempts to bury CO2 in gas fields near Rotterdam. In June, Swedish company Vattenfall stalled in its attempt to create in Germany the first all-new plant to capture, compress and store its CO2.

Burial on any scale is rare. Norwegian oil company Statoil buries around 800,000 tonnes of CO2 a year under the North sea, but that is a far smaller amount than the emissions from a coal power plant. In Britain, the government’s North sea basin task force claims that there is enough space in depleted oil fields and saline aquifers to store existing emissions from coal for 100 years, but only in theory. As Lackner warns: “The public is concerned about technological fixes that create situations that could spiral out of control.”

These fears have led to calls for other solutions. In a rented warehouse in Kent, a team of British scientists-turned-entrepreneurs are trying out an alternative technique using a modified cement mixer and bottles of waste CO2. “We take a waste that’s a problem and mix it with CO2 to produce a material that we can sell,” says Paula Carey, the technique’s inventor and the commercial director of Carbon8 Systems. As she speaks her team opens the vent connecting the bottles to the machine. The temperature needle on the side begins to hover upwards. Into the mixer they add coal ash, water and CO2 in precise—and secret—quantities. The result is a boiling, bubbling concoction that “locks” CO2 into the ash, producing small white pellets. Carey says these can be sold for building materials and insulation. They are even helping to purify land at the London Olympic site. The company has been awarded a technology strategy board grant to look at using its process in power stations.

Like Mike Morris, Carey sees cleaning coal as urgent and potentially profitable. But she thinks that underground storage projects are unwise. If the process she and her colleagues are developing works, it will be lower risk. As it uses CO2 mixed with air and doesn’t need it to be separated out, it could be cheaper too. But the scale seems limited. Carey’s colleague, Steff Simons, admits that the process could remove less than 1 per cent of Britain’s total emissions; AEP plans to bury more gas each year at the Mountaineer plant alone.

Lackner, though, has developed the idea on a larger scale. Trees absorb CO2 but, to the German professor, they do so inefficiently. Worse, much of what they absorb in photosynthesis is balanced by what they release through respiration. Instead, Lackner is working on a mechanical tree that would not respire and would absorb far more CO2 than, say, a conifer. Like the British group, Lackner is also looking to absorb the gas into rocks. In this process, called “mineral sequestration,” CO2 reacts with certain rocks, called silicates, creating a solid rock product. His company, Global Research Technologies, wants to be the first to remove CO2 from the air.

Lackner’s colleague at Columbia, economist Geoffrey Heal, puts it simply: “If Klaus is right, then most renewable energy sources are pointless—we can just keep burning clean coal.” But again, it will probably take decades before an idea like this one could be put into practice.

Both the coal industry and climate change campaigners can’t afford to wait a decade to see what will work. And despite Morris’s brashness, he is aware his industry risks marginalisation. Virtually no coal plants have been built in the US or Britain for decades.

To Morris, abundant coal is central to a future without scarce oil. As he says, the developing world also needs it. “Worldwide the economy will come back eventually, worldwide the population is bigger, worldwide there will be more people driving cars, worldwide there will be more people enjoying the electrification of their economy”—and it’s all going to need coal. But to Al Gore and other environmentalists, the stakes are equally high. One of Gore’s “reality campaign” adverts pictured a man walking into an empty wasteland. “This is clean coal,” he declared as tumbleweed wafts by. The message: if world leaders choose to endorse clean coal technology at Copenhagen, they will be taking a bet on something that doesn’t exist—to solve a problem that is very real.

On the lawn of West Virginia’s state capital, a bronze statue of a miner stands in celebration of an industry that has triumphed over nature and geology. If it is to earn its place here, clean coal still has a lot to prove.