Pilot plant demonstrates carbon storage capabilities

NEW HAVEN, WEST VIRGINIA - Eyes around the world were focused on commissioning of a carbon capture and storage facility at American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Power Plant.

The 1,300-megawatt coal-fired plant, situated on the Ohio River north of Charleston, is the first in the world to successfully demonstrate a technology on this scale that removes carbon dioxide from its emissions stream and sequesters it in the ground.

According to AEP, the project is able to capture and store about 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year – or 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from the flue gas sent through its chilled ammonia process.

“This pilot plant today shows that we can power our country, clean our air and grow our economy,” said Kristina Johnson, undersecretary for energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, while speaking to an international audience at the power plant.

“It’s a stunning demonstration of elegant engineering, design and innovation,” Johnson said.

“This project is a critical step in the commercial-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage.”

It’s a first that’s drawn international attention because, as climate change and carbon dioxide limits have become increasingly hot topics, researchers have rushed to prove the technology.

In the United States, with Congress considering climate change legislation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adding regulations, many have said the continued use of coal for power generation hinges on the speedy development of carbon capture and storage.

“Coal is a must, and coal must be clean,” said Philippe Joubert, president of Alstom, the French company that partnered with AEP on the project. “Mountaineer is a turning point; this day we will all remember.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., speaking at the power plant, summarized the uneasiness that has permeated coalfield communities in recent months.

“If I’m a coal miner sitting out in West Virginia, I’m nervous, I’m afraid, scared, [wondering], ‘Am I going to have a job?’ ” Rockefeller said. “People need to come and see what’s being done here today. That’s what’s going to settle people down.”

The $137 million facility treats the gas created by about 20 megawatts of power generation, said Matt Cage, lead engineer on the project for Alstom.

Removing the carbon dioxide requires several steps, Cage said.

First, the flue gas is cooled to below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then, the gas enters an area called the absorber, where an ammonium carbonate solution is sprayed down as the gas comes up, causing a chemical reaction that removes most of the carbon dioxide.

The residual ammonia is removed before the remaining gas, which has already been scrubbed of other pollutants, is released into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the chemical containing the carbon dioxide goes on to another part of the process, called the regenerator, where the carbon dioxide is removed using temperature and pressure. The ammonium carbonate solution is re-used, and the carbon dioxide is injected into the ground for storage.

Rockefeller said the Mountaineer plant demonstration proves carbon capture and storage technology can guarantee the future of the region’s coal industry.

“We’re talking about the future of the world, the future of America, the future of coal miners in West Virginia; are they going to be able to mine coal or are they not,” Rockefeller said. “With the right technology, with the right investment, of course they’re going to be able to and they’re going to be able to do it with a certainty that they’ve never had before.”

Rockefeller called for another $25 billion in federal investment in the technology on top of the $3.5 billion included in the economic stimulus bill – and for those who work in the coal industry to embrace a technological future.

While praise and celebration were the dominant emotions, the political dignitaries who spoke also delivered, in bits and pieces, a political message: Government regulators, please allow time for this technology to be deployed before tight carbon dioxide emissions controls kick in; otherwise, the damage to the economy could be disastrous.

“We have provided energy and electricity to this country for decades, and we would like to continue to be part of the solution,” West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said. “West Virginia will be a part of the future of this great country. Coal is going to be needed as the fuel of transition to the fuel of the future.”

Manchin, who often touts West Virginia as a state that does the heavy living for much of the nation, also praised it for being on the cutting edge.

Michael Morris, AEP’s chairman, president and CEO, said West Virginia “is leading this country with a technological advancement to ensure that coal, the most important fuel in the world for the generation of electricity, will continue to have a very bright future.”

Other carbon capture projects are already on the near horizon. AEP is seeking to scale up its Mountaineer project to handle the emissions from 235 megawatts of power generation – and remove 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Joubert said similar commercial-scale projects are under development in Canada and in Europe; each is estimated to take two to three years from the time it is funded to become operational.

In the United States, more carbon capture and storage projects – including one at Dominion’s new power plant in Wise County, Va., using a different technology – are awaiting federal funding decisions.

“We don’t blame people for sins of the past; we fix it and move on,” Manchin said. “We try to basically embrace the resources we have for energy. We find ways to do it better, and we find better solutions…. Hopefully if we do it, and do it in an economically viable way, the rest of the world will adopt it.”


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