CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new study suggests that technology to capture greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants may be more ready for wide deployment than industry officials and political leaders in coal states would have the public believe.
The new review, published last week in the journal Energy Policy, found that most experts on the process don't question the "readiness" of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology.
"CCS experts share broad confidence in the technology's readiness, despite continued calls for commercial-scale demonstration projects before CCS is widely deployed," concluded the paper, which examined the barriers to broad application of carbon dioxide controls by electrical utilities. Such a finding conflicts with many previous studies, but provides an interesting contrast to what most coal country discussion of CCS inevitably concludes.
A team from the University of Utah's law school and its Institute for Clean and Secure Energy surveyed 229 CCS experts from academia, industry, environmental groups and government to try to evaluate the state of knowledge about CCS technology.
Among other things, the survey identified a variety of previously noted hurdles: high cost, lack of government regulations to encourage deployment, long-term liability risks and the failure of government officials a regime of rules governing CCS.
Utah law professor Lincoln Davies and his co-authors emphasized that most CCS experts continue to see the lack of a "carbon price" -- in the form of some sort of mandate to reduce emissions -- as a key barrier for the technology's advancement.
"However limited the progress on broad-scale CCS commercialization has been to date, the path toward deployment within the United States is clear," their study said.
"Comprehensive regulation and meaningful carbon pricing are essential if CCS is to move from promising prospect to commercial-scale implementation," they found. "In the absence of government leadership, the private sector is unlikely to assume the significant economic costs inherent in adopting CCS."
Alan Nogee, an energy consultant formerly with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the new Utah study matched most previous examinations of CCS, except that its conclusion about the technology's "readiness" did not "seem consistent with the rest."
In June, President Obama announced, as part of a broad climate change action plan, that he had directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get to work on long-delayed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Under the president's plan, the EPA would first finalize carbon dioxide limits for new power plants by September. EPA would then move forward with carbon dioxide limits for existing plants, issuing a proposal by June 2014 and finalizing those limits by June 2015. The rules will cover all electricity-generating stations -- the source of one-third of U.S. greenhouse emissions -- but would almost certainly be tougher on coal-fired plants because burning coal produces more carbon dioxide than burning natural gas.
Coal industry officials and their allies among Appalachian political leaders complained that the Obama proposal would move too quickly, setting standards they said utilities couldn't meet with currently available equipment.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, for example, "The regulations the president wants to force on coal are not feasible. And if it's not feasible, it's not reasonable."
A few years ago, Manchin and other political leaders were saying otherwise. When American Electric Power received a state permit in May 2009 for a CCS test project at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, then-Gov. Manchin said, "I've always said that we need to discover modern and more environmentally friendly ways to use the tremendous resource we have in West Virginia coal.