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Carbon capture for coal costly, study finds

Jul 21, 2009 - Ken Ward Jr. - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Harvard University researchers have issued a new report that confirms what many experts already feared: Stopping greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants is going to cost a lot of money.

Electricity costs could double at a first-generation plant that captures and stores carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report from energy researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.

Costs would drop as the technology matures, but could still amount to an increase of 22 to 55 percent, according to the report, "Realistic Costs of Carbon Capture," issued this week.

These projections "are higher than many published estimates," but reflect capital project inflation and "greater knowledge of project costs," wrote researchers Mohammed Al-Juaied and Adam Whitmore.

Coal is the nation's largest source of global warming pollution, representing about a third of U.S. greenhouse emissions, equal to the combined output of all cars, trucks, buses, trains and boats.

In the U.S., coal provides half of the nation's electricity. Many experts believe that, because of vast supplies, coal will continue to generate much of the nation's power for many years to come.

Climate scientists, though, recommend that the nation swiftly cut carbon dioxide emissions and ultimately reduce them by at least 80 percent below 2000 levels by mid-century to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Industry supporters say the key is for scientists to perfect technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and pump those gases safely underground. But such technology has never been deployed on a commercial scale. Critics worry about the expense, safety and a host of technical hurdles.

Previous studies have found that carbon capture and storage, or CCS, might cost in the neighborhood of $30 to $50 per ton of carbon dioxide that is captured and stored.

But in a major report last October, the Union of Concerned Scientists warned that such estimates might be overly optimistic. Among other problems, the group said, previous studies did not reflect rising construction, material and labor costs.

The new Harvard study tried to account for such issues. As a result, it projected CCS costs at between $120 and $180 per ton of carbon dioxide captured and stored.

That's for a first-of-its kind, new generation of coal-fired plant that eliminates most carbon dioxide emissions.

The cost translates to an increased cost of electricity of about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Nationally, the average electricity cost is about 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In West Virginia, costs are much lower, an average of 5.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the DOE.

Typically, the state Public Service Commission's Consumer Advocate Division uses the figure of 600 kilowatt-hours per month as an average usage in West Virginia. Using that number, the CCS projections would increase an average power bill by about $60 per month, or $720 per year.

The Harvard study projected that, as technology improves, CCS costs would drop. Later-generation plants would cost between $30 and $50 for every ton of carbon dioxide they capture.

That amounts to between 2 and 5 cents more per kilowatt-hour of power, according to the study. On average, that's between $12 and $30 per month more for electricity.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702