It should come as no surprise to those of us who follow environmental issues vis-à-vis climate and pollution that Norway this week walked away from the longest-running and most disappointing carbon capture plant in the world.
Norway, sadly, is not the first, but its abandonment of Mongstad follows a familiar pattern of enormous hope and dismal acceptance: carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, is an unachievable ideal at this time given the current technology.
Or, to put it more bluntly (as global energy/carbon capture firm Aker Solutions does), “The carbon sequestration market is dead.” A sentiment reiterated by Environmental News Network (ENN), which as recently as 2012 wrote: There are several ways to remove CO2 from a stack gas. None have reached a commercial basis yet due to the expense of the processing.
And nowhere is it more dead than in the United States, where the 2003 Bush brainchild called FutureGen – built on the hopes and limited success of NexGen, among others – was abruptly canceled in January of 2008 because of concern about cost overruns.
The definition of insanity is repeating a consistent failure in expectation of success. CCS currently falls under that definition. Unfortunately, it will be close to impossible for any new coal power plants to meet the climate regulations proposed by the Obama administration without using carbon-capturing technology. And, putting money where its mouth is, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has announced $84 million in grants to make CCS technology a reality.
The technology behind Austin, Texas-based Skyonic is already well ahead of the pack. Plants called Skymine pull carbon dioxide and other elements from flue gas in a patented technique called Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) or, alternatively, Carbon Capture and Mineralization.
And that, says Skyonic Director of Communications Stacy MacDiarmid, is precisely what happens. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, becomes sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda (NaHCO3), an almost ubiquitous chemical used in medicine, in personal hygiene, as a household cleaning agent, in baking and cooking, in industry (as an amine or nitrogen-based hydrocarbon neutralizer), a corrosion inhibitor and rust preventative, for hydrolysis (hydration) of concrete, in water treatment plants to balance water pH, in the manufacture of fabrics, leather, glass, and plastic, as the suppressant in fire extinguishers, to control air pollution from burning waste, as well as in foundries, aluminum production, ethanol production, brick making and in drilling operations, where it keeps drilling fluids and the like within the proper pH range. In effect, Skyonic is talking millions in consumer and industry spending for a very basic but widely useful chemical. To say nothing of other chemicals like sulfur and nitrous oxides, which can also be drawn off flue gases.
Skyonic, which is currently operating its test plant, broke ground on a commercial-scale plant this summer. It will, according to MacDiarmid, begin operations in the last quarter of 2014, “…at full production of all anticipated products and byproducts.”
Skyonic Skymine plants, each roughly the size of a dual-axle semi-trailer truck, cost about $125 million for a 75,000-ton direct capture plant, which also delivers 225 tons of carbon offsets for a yearly total of 300,000 tons of offsets. This includes all construction and equipment, and the immediate prospect of capturing chemicals to sell to the marketplace.
For those firms wanting to capture more than 75,000 tons, the Skymine plant is also scalable. Not infinitely scalable, of course, but enough so that factories and power plants can capture enough to more than meet their mandates under the Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA’s, Acid Rain Program.
Moving forward thanks to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) loans – $3 million for the R&D phase, another $25 million to bring the venture to commercial scale – Skyonic is also funded by major energy industry players to the tune of $128 million.
Skyonic’s advantage over CCS plants is that its operation is monetized. All the byproducts extracted from flue gases via slipstream operations have an immediately tangible value, including the sulfur and nitrous oxides already regulated by the EPA.
Thus, while the commercial cost per ton of flue gas “cleaned” via CCU is $45, the cost to utilities and other carbon emitters for CCS is, according to a Harvard study, $150 per ton in 2008 dollars. Other estimates put CCS costs as high as $300 per ton.
It would be nearly impossible for any new coal power plants to meet stringent climate regulations as proposed by the Obama administration without using carbon-capturing technology. And, putting money where its mouth is, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has announced $84 million in DOE grants to make CCS technology a reality. Really.
Unlike CCS, Skymine costs include transportation. In fact, according to the DOE, CCS increases coal-fired electricity costs by 70 percent, and that’s before the additional cost of building pipelines and establishing reservoirs. For consumers, this means a doubling (or more) of current energy costs.
Are there any future limits to CCU efficiency? Yes, says MacDairmid. “Our process is most efficient at 90 percent. Thus, even in a complete carbon capture and conversion, we would probably never get more than 90 percent of carbon and other emissions.”
CCS can’t do that well, even at best estimates. In fact, in what sounds like a final death knell for CCS, SmartPlanet puts the cost of carbon capture via fossil fuel plants (coal, oil and natural gas) so high that consumers will end up paying more for coal-fired electricity than they will for renewables, which are already approaching parity.
To MacDiarmid, who detoured from a professorship in her post-grad world to working for Skyonic because it offered her an actual mission – what she cheerfully describes as ‘something impactful’, the one takeaway she wants people to remember is that Skyonic carbon capture and utilization is profitable, retrofittable and scalable.
Which sounds to this writer like a recipe for success. Baking powder biscuits, anyone?