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A first-of-its-kind coal-fired power plant retrofitted with technology to capture and store most of the carbon dioxide produced at one of its boilers officially began operations this week in Saskatchewan, Canada. Meanwhile, a similar project in Illinois to demonstrate a cleaner way to burn the world's most abundant fossil fuel remains in legal and financial limbo.
Whether the U.S. government-backed project in Meredosia, Ill., will advance so-called carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology is an open question, but experts deem the technology itself vital if the world hopes to stand any practical chance at staving off catastrophic climate change.
And CCS is being propelled forward by pollution-control measures such as the Obama admnistration's proposed rules to limit carbon emissions from new and existing power plants.
"The reason that you want to look at CCS is the math," John Thompson, the director of the Fossil Transition Project at the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit that advocates for low-carbon energy technologies, explained to NBC News.
About two-thirds of the roughly 30 gigatons of carbon dioxide released by human activity each year comes from the power sector and industrial activities such as oil refining and fertilizer production. These activities are all "amenable to carbon capture and storage," Thompson said. "In fact, you can capture 90 percent of the CO2 from any one of those particular sources."
'Great bumper sticker'
While increased use of nuclear, solar and wind power could replace some coal, gas and oil-fired power plants, they are not an option for most industrial sources of carbon dioxide, he added. "Eliminating fossil fuels is a great bumper sticker," he said. "It is an ineffective climate solution."
To boot, global greenhouse gas "emissions are higher than they have ever been and we are building more coal plants every year," Steven Davis, an earth systems scientist at the University of California, Irvine, told NBC News.
In fact, current emission and construction trends suggest that the international goal to limit warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is "completely implausible," he said during a presentation of his research at a recent climate conference in Seattle. Getting anywhere close to the goal, he added in a follow-up interview, will almost certainly require massive deployment of solar and nuclear power along with CCS.
"But there is a big cost associated with CCS," he noted. "It is like 40 or 50 percent more expensive to get energy from a fossil plant if it has CCS."
How CCS works
Carbon capture and storage is a basket of technologies used to prevent carbon dioxide from escaping to the atmosphere in the course of power generation and other industrial activities. The captured gas is typically injected deep underground where, in theory, it will stay forever. In some cases, this injected gas is used to force out remnant oil from underground deposits, a process known as enhanced oil recovery.
"It is a natural next step especially for the fossil fuel industry which sees value in CCS because it means we can continue to keep burning their products," Davis said.
The carbon capture approach used at SaskPower's newly retrofitted Boundary Dam Power Plant in Saskatchewan removes the carbon dioxide with a chemical solution after the coal is burned to generate electricity. The captured gas will be used for enhanced oil recovery; some will be stored 2.1 miles deep in the Earth in a layer of brine-filled sandstone.
A second method called coal gasification employs heat and pressure to convert coal into gas before it is burned, easing the removal of carbon dioxide. A Southern Company power plant under construction in Kemper County, Miss., due to come online in 2015 uses this approach. The captured carbon dioxide will be shipped via pipeline to nearby oil fields.
The project in Meredosia, Ill., is backed by a $1 billion federal stimulus grant and aims to demonstrate a technology known as oxy-combustion, where the coal is burned in oxygen and carbon dioxide instead of air to produce a concentrated stream of carbon dioxide for transportation and storage in saline rock deep underground.
That Illinois project, known as FutureGen 2.0, will retrofit and restart a boiler at a retired coal-fired power plant. It is the second iteration of a demonstration project originally conceived under the George W. Bush administration in 2003. The original project was scrapped due to cost overruns.
The scaled-back version also faces financial hurdles, including efforts to secure $650 million in private sector financing that have been hindered by a legal challenge from the Sierra Club, which opposes coal plant construction, according to MIT Technology Review.
"The lawsuit is really about the integrity of the permitting process," Eva Schueller, an attorney for the Sierra Club, told NBC News. The current permit, she explained, will allow the project backers to operate the refurbished plant as a traditional coal plant without limits on the amount of carbon it can release into the atmosphere.
The environmental group and the project backers are working together "to resolve issues related to the air permit," Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for the FutureGen Alliance, told NBC News in an email. Meanwhile, he added, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently issued the project an underground storage permit for carbon dioxide and limited construction has begun at the plant.
'The world changes'
Thompson with the Clean Air Task Force holds a dim view on the FutureGen 2.0 project, which he noted even if built would demonstrate a "third-tier" approach to carbon capture that is unlikely to gain mass market traction.
Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the future of carbon capture and storage technology.
"I see a series of projects breaking ground or going into operation that for the first time actually capture CO2 from these power sources and once that happens I think the world changes," he said.
The caveats, noted Davis, concern the high price tag for energy generated with the technology as well as the new infrastructure required to do it. For example, his rough calculations suggest that to capture and store just 10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions would require the same amount of pipelines and pumping infrastructure that already exist for the oil industry.
"It is not technologically impossible," he said, "but some people might hear that and say there is no way we are going to do it."