updated 1/29/2009 3:41:04 PM ET 2009-01-29T20:41:04

Five coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and Canada are studying the feasibility of retrofits to capture and store carbon dioxide, a nonprofit industry research group says.

Electric Power Research Institute said studies are being done at plants in Illinois, Ohio, North Dakota, Utah, and Nova Scotia, Canada. The group said the research could help guide development of future power plants and how they deal with carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming.

Clay Perry, a spokesman for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based research group, said the carbon-capture studies are being done this year and will be shared throughout the industry.

"These issues are so large, I don't know of any company that can do the research on their own," Perry said.

At one of the sites — the Great River power plant near Underwood, N.D. — senior engineer Charlie Bullinger said the plants participating in the study vary in size and the type of coal burned to make power. The 1,100-megawatt Great River plant is one of the largest in the study and burns lignite, a low-grade coal that is abundant in the state.

Technology does not yet exist to capture CO2 cheaply and efficiently, Bullinger said.

"Everybody and their scientific mother is in the lab trying to build a better mousetrap to address this C02 problem," Bullinger said. "The problem is, they're all in the lab and they haven't been scaled up."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., calls that the "valley of death" stage.

"We are trying to make funds available to take these to demonstration scale," said Dorgan, who chairs U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. He said $4.6 billion in federal money is earmarked this year for carbon capture projects.

"We need to get this out and see how it works in the real world," Dorgan said. "I'm optimistic we can find a method of carbon capture that will not be particularly expensive."

Bullinger said his company, which is based in Maple Grove, Minn., and the others involved in the research are studying the use of a chemical derived from ammonia to snare C02 emissions.

"It's a bullet but it's hardly silver," Bullinger said of the technology, which has never been adapted for large-scale projects.

Bullinger said the technology — known as "advanced amine-based, post-combustion carbon capture technology" — has been proven in small experimental projects to capture most of the CO2 emissions from a coal-fired plant. But it's expensive and inefficient, he said.

"It costs half again as much as the cost of the plant, and physically, you have to double the amount of real estate of the plant to retrofit it on the back of a plant that already exists," he said.

The technology also is parasitic, Bullinger said. Thirty percent of the plant's power output is needed to run the carbon capturing technology, he said.

"At a minimum, you'd have to build 30 percent more power plants to get back to the base of where you first started," he said.

Bullinger said no power plants in the study are considering retrofits at present. "The technology is so immature and the costs are so much than no one is doing it right now," he said.

The federal government is backing a $300 million loan for Bismarck's Basin Electric Power Cooperative to capture carbon dioxide at the company's coal-fired power plant in central North Dakota, a project that could start this year.

The study by the five power plants, funded by the industry, is pegged at more than $1 million, Bullinger said. The results will define costs and feasibility, he said.

"We're trying to develop a baseline — a base case from which to work from," Bullinger said. "By investing in carbon-capture studies, we will be able to find the proper technology that will keep prices low for customers, keep a cleaner sky, and hopefully retain the reliability that we already have."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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