And AEP is not alone in revisiting the technology. In Pennsylvania, an industrial consortium is proposing a 5,000-barrel-per-day coal-to-liquid plant, using technology from South African gasification giant Sasol. Peabody Energy is talking about a plant in Illinois that would produce natural gas from coal. The governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, is trying to jump-start a coal-to-liquids industry in his state. Abroad, a few companies are planning “oxy-fuels” plants, in which coal is burned in pure oxygen. (The exhaust gases are mainly carbon dioxide and water vapor; water can be condensed and removed, allowing collection of the concentrated carbon dioxide.)
What’s lacking is broad action to build such plants in significant numbers. Coal presents the world’s single largest opportunity for carbon dioxide mitigation. Coal consumption produces 37 percent of the world’s fossil-fuel-related emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. While oil consumption produces more – nearly 42 percent – much of that comes from cars, trucks, planes, and other means of transportation for which carbon dioxide capture is practically impossible. In the United States, coal contributes 51 percent of the electricity but 81 percent of the carbon dioxide related to power generation. The technology for cleaner coal plants and carbon dioxide capture exists. But in a story repeated across many energy sectors, little of it is actually being used.
AEP expects the Great Bend IGCC plant to cost 15 to 20 percent more overall than a conventional coal plant, but it could recoup the difference from customers under pending regulation in Ohio and West Virginia (site of a second proposed AEP IGCC plant). Capturing the carbon dioxide emitted by the plant, however, is another story. This part of AEP’s site plan is literally a blank space, reserved for some future day when carbon dioxide emissions might be regulated. AEP says it is already deploying its own strategies to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 6 percent. But like the White House, it opposes carbon dioxide limits – on the grounds that the United States shouldn’t do anything China and India aren’t doing. Yet the technology for carbon capture is mature, too. For years, the Norwegian company Statoil has been capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide produced by its natural-gas wells in the North Sea. And AEP maintains the position that underground sequestration seems feasible in regions it serves.
If IGCC is more than ready, its benefits are apparent, and sequestration seems plausible, why aren’t plants that at least make carbon dioxide capture simpler getting built? “I don’t necessarily think the technology is the limiting step. What’s not there is the economic incentive, of course,” says Howard Herzog, a chemical engineer at MIT, who manages an industrial consortium called the Carbon Sequestration Initiative. AEP estimates that IGCC plants with carbon sequestration could carry a 50 percent overall cost premium compared with traditional plants. But IGCC plants are also a little more efficient than traditional plants, and their cost might come down when they’re built in volume, or if improved designs and materials boost their efficiency further. Markets might even emerge for carbon dioxide, which can be pumped into oil wells to enhance production. Still, the proliferation of better coal-fired power plants will need kick-starting. “You are not going to do this without some policy changes,” Herzog says. “But technology-wise, I think we can do this quickly.”