Coal fired power plant in Bow, NH
I came across a recent report by SeacoastOnline about a company in Portsmouth called Powerspan that's doing some pretty cool work with carbon capture technology. Apparently, the firm just completed a pilot program on a 1 megawatt coal plant in Ohio that helped prove out their technology and lay the groundwork for a future commercial deployment.
Carbon capture is a technique that helps clean up the output from coal-fired power plants. In NH, PSNH is working on cleaning up emissions from our largest coal plant, Merrimack Station, but this effort will only remove mercury and sulfur dioxide, not carbon.
As I've mentioned before, for lots of reasons, coal is likely to be an important part of our energy mix for decades to come. Anything we can do to economically clean up the output from coal power plants is a good thing. It's neat that we've got a company right here in the seacoast of New Hampshire that's helping to solve this tough worldwide problem.
Although this is promising technology, Powerspan still has some big work ahead of them, especially in terms of economics. The firm's press release on the pilot indicates that using their technology will cost around $50 per ton of carbon removed from a coal plant's output. While this is apparently a breakthrough compared to competing carbon capture technologies, $50 per ton is still nothing to sneeze at.
Some very rough power generation costs (using $20 per ton for coal emissions)
For some perspective on that cost, consider the data in my power generation economics post from last July. In one of the later graphs, I priced carbon emissions at $20 per ton to show the impact of emissions on the economics of coal generation (see graph above). Generating a megawatt hour of power using coal can easily produce a ton of carbon emissions, so adding in a $50 per ton charge instead of $20 would significantly increase the cost of power from coal. In fact, adding $50 a ton for carbon capture would move coal's fuel and operating cost from 4.5 cents to 7.5 cents per kWh in the graph above. That could make coal uncompetitive versus other approaches.
Still, we shouldn't be too negative about the costs of carbon capture. The technology is still in its infancy and we're likely to see major breakthroughs along the way. Also, as long as we're subsidizing other emerging clean power generation technologies like wind and solar, it seems only right that carbon capture is included in the mix.
IMO, we should think of investing in power generation technology the way we think about personal investing. We should take a "portfolio" approach and diversify in order to minimize our risks and maximize opportunity. Even though wind and solar are showing great promise right now, we shouldn't put all our research eggs in one basket.
It's going to be a long haul to get to a cleaner energy future and I don't think anyone really knows what that future will look like. Personally, I'm glad to see these local folks working hard and smart to help us find the best way there.