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Electric Utilities Adopt Coal Emissions Scrubbers While the Industry Tests Carbon Capture and Clean Coal Technologies, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

While coal is an abundant resource in many parts of the world, it is generally burned in a manner that creates significant amounts of air pollution.  On a global scale, the burning of coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel source.  “Clean coal” technologies have been developed, but advanced technologies are enormously expensive.
In the U.S., coal comes from several different regions.  The Northern Appalachian area of the Eastern U.S. and the Illinois Basin in the Midwest produce coal that is high in sulfur, which emits more pollutants.  In contrast are the enormous stores of coal in Wyoming and Montana, which burn at lower temperatures and produce less energy than high sulfur coal but create less pollution.  Coal from the Illinois Basin burns in an efficient manner at very high temperatures. 
Advanced filtering units called scrubbers are in use by U.S. coal-fired electric generating plants.  Scrubbers are multistory facilities that are built adjacent to smokestacks.  They capture sulfur as the coal exhaust billows through the smokestack and sequester it for storage before it can be cleaned.  Unfortunately, scrubbers are extremely expensive.  Costs of $400 million and more for a single scrubber are common.
Coal-gasification plants could conceivably become a trend for electric generation plant construction over the long term.  However, costs remain a significant obstacle.  Such plants use a process that first converts coal into a synthetic gas, later burning that gas to power the electric generators.  The steam produced in the process is further used to generate electricity.  The process is called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC).  While these plants are much more expensive to construct than traditional coal-burning plants, they produce much less pollution.  Since the coal isn’t actually burnt, these plants can use lower-cost coal that is high in sulfur.  In addition, such plants reduce the amount of mercury emitted from the use of coal by as much as 95%.  Several demonstration plants have been constructed using IGCC technology, typically with government funding.  U.S. plants include those in Mulberry, Florida and West Terre Haute, Indiana.  Japan has constructed a demonstration plant, the Nakoso Power Station at Iwaki City.  Other demonstration plants have been in operation or under consideration in Europe, Asia and Australia.  However, high costs and the difficulty of funding continue to create challenges.  Siemens, a leading global firm in the power equipment industry, has been involved in multiple projects.  SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Power Station Unit 3 in Saskatchewan is utilizing advanced technologies for coal-fired generation.  It was a pioneer in utilizing full-scale, post-combustion carbon capture and storage in a major generating facility.
American Electric Power (AEP), a Columbus, Ohio electric utility, shelved plans to build an IGCC carbon-capture plant in West Virginia.  This was due to the company’s concerns that state regulators would not allow it to be reimbursed (through utility bill increases) for $668 million in related costs.  Without substantial government support on the federal and state levels, power companies are unlikely to be able to afford IGCC efforts.
Due to cost overruns associated with the attempt to implement state-of-the-art IGCC clean coal technologies, a plant in Mississippi quickly became one of the most expensive fossil fuel projects ever built.  Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County plant’s price tag was expected to reach $6.4 billion, more than two and one-half times its original budget of $2.4 billion.  Mississippi Power abandoned its coal gasification efforts and switched to burning natural gas only.  The Clean Air Task Force, an environmental and energy policy organization, estimates that a retrofit of an existing 300-megawatt natural gas plant with carbon capture technology would cost $372 million, compared to $600 million for a similarly sized coal plant.
An additional step that can be added to IGCC plants is the capture or “sequestration” (CCS) of carbon dioxide (also referred to as carbon capture use and sequestration (CCUS)).  The technology to do so already exists.  For example, Norway’s Statoil has used it for years at its natural-gas wells in the North Sea.  The sequestered carbon dioxide can be pumped underground.  Fortunately, carbon dioxide can be used in oil and gas wells to enhance recovery in a process known as CO2 flooding.

Internet Research Tip: Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)
For an excellent discussion of carbon capture and sequestration technologies, research and demonstration projects, see the U.S. Department of Energy’s web site for the NETL (National Energy Technology Laboratory)

     Carbon capture technologies could possibly have wide use outside of the electric utilities industry.  The Skyonic plant near San Antonio, Texas, which opened in late 2014, captures carbon emitted during the manufacture of cement, and uses it to produce sodium bicarbonate and hydrochloric acid by its reaction to rock salt.  The plant received $28 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.  It can capture 83,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, and because it saves carbon emissions made using traditional chemical production processes, it claims an additional 220,000 tons per year.  A July 2022 energy bill passed by the U.S. Congress provided new incentives to utility companies that institute effective carbon capture technologies.
ExxonMobil formed a new subsidiary, ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, to commercialize carbon capture from the atmosphere and storage of it below ground and is investing $3 billion in this area through 2025.  Exxon reported the capture of more than 120 million metric tons of carbon over the past 30 years, or 40% of all captured emissions on a global basis.  (Nearly all came from the Shute Creek Treating Facility in Wyoming, which processes natural gas.)  Carbon dioxide is separated from other gases and then sold to oil producers that use it in enhanced oil recovery.  This kind of recovery pumps carbon into established oil and gas reservoirs to increase pressure.  The firm forecasted a $2 trillion global market for the technology by 2040.  Chevron was forming partnerships in 2021 to develop storage projects, and BP was working on storage projects in the UK and Australia. 
SPOTLIGHT:  Occidental Petroleum
As of early 2023, Occidental Petroleum Corp. was investing more than $1 billion to construct its first direct-air carbon capture facility in Texas, near Midland.  As part of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, up to 45% of Occidental’s initial costs per metric ton of carbon will be covered by the federal government.  Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is Occidental’s largest investor. The technology could potentially enable Occidental to approach net-zero emissions by 2050.  If successful, the process will become a major money-maker for Occidental, which plans to sell carbon removal credits to companies that at present are unable to adopt green technologies (e.g., airlines, trucking and shipping companies).  Global investment in the capture, transport and storage of CO2 will garner $156 billion in investment from 2023 to 2033, as estimated by Wood Mackenzie.

     Another popular choice to absorb CO2 is reforestation.  French oil and gas giant Total SE announced plans in early 2021 to plant a 40,000-hectare forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo to sequester 10 million tons of CO2 through 2041.  Other companies focused on reforestation include Italian oil and gas firm Eni, as well as IAG, which owns British Airways.
Regenerative farming is also in use to limit CO2 emissions, which is critical since agriculture generates approximately one-fifth of global emissions.  Techniques include reduced soil tillage, cover-crop planting and cyclical grazing of livestock.  The National Academy of Sciences estimated that regenerative farming in the U.S. could capture 250 million tons of greenhouse gases per year (an amount equal to about 5% of current U.S. emissions).

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