The Biden administration this week introduced new legislation that would go a long way toward achieving the president’s ambitious climate goals. But it is based on two little-used technologies, which makes it difficult to reach the target.
The new proposal sets strict limits on the planet’s warming that would significantly reduce the contribution of coal plants and some gas plants to climate change.
In the year Coal plants that intend to remain in operation after 2039 must install technology that reduces carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2030. The largest existing natural gas plants and any new ones that open are also expected to use technology to reduce their emissions. In the year 90 percent by 2035 or 2038 will run on low-carbon hydrogen energy. Plants that choose the hydrogen route must get 30 percent of their energy from hydrogen by 2032 and 96 percent from hydrogen by 2038.
But neither hydrogen nor another technology, known as carbon capture, is widely used in the energy sector — leading some experts to question whether their use could increase over time to meet the regulation’s requirements.
The only US plant to use carbon capture is slated to close in 2020. The plant, known as Petra Nova, was closed due to the drop in oil prices, and used to sell the captured carbon for oil recovery. But plans to relaunch it have been announced recently.
Canada has a plant using the technology, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation points to some additional examples where it has been used.
But carbon casting has a ways to go before it becomes mainstream.
“In the power generation industry, we typically want to see several full demonstrations before we can call it commercial-ready, bringing new technologies to that level,” said Brandon Delis, director of environmental research for the generation sector. EPRI, a non-profit research organization.
“I think there’s still a lot to learn, there’s still a lot of work to do, and things like operational challenges, maintenance challenges, how to optimize the system…we have to learn before we deploy this technology across the entire fleet,” Delis added.
Julia Atwood, head of sustainable materials at research provider BloombergNEF, brought up the logistical challenge – getting carbon capture accepted.
She said widespread adoption of carbon capture was “technically possible” but described a “backlog” of government approval, which currently takes about six years to obtain.
Transporting and storing the captured carbon poses a challenge, she said.
“It is very difficult to find people who are knowledgeable enough to examine and judge these ideas. “Most people who know underground geology like that work for oil companies,” she said.
“Current transport and storage areas are mostly concentrated around petrochemical and oil production because those are the industries that have been using them so far,” she said. “So if you have a remote power plant that has to build a large pipeline to get to a shared storage facility, that obviously adds quite a bit to your cost.”
Regarding hydrogen, Frank Wallack, president and CEO of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, says that power plants are using hydrogen as fuel in some pilot programs, but no major plants are using it.
He said that the 2032 goal of the regulation could be achieved, but he was not sure about the 2038 goal.
By 2032, 30 percent is achievable. I think it’s about taking existing plants and seeing how much hydrogen can be put in with minor modifications. “If some plants are gas turbines, they may need to replace or refurbish the turbines,” Wallack said.
Atwood’s challenge with hydrogen is its cost.
“You have a cheap solution to some infrastructure problems [carbon capture]And you have a simple infrastructure problem, but the cost of the hydrogen option is very high, so I guess the operators have to choose which risk they want to take.
Scott Sklar, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Environmental and Energy Management, said they are “brutal” on hydrogen.
“The administration is putting a lot of money — research and development as well as tax incentives — into hydrogen at the expense of inflation,” he said.
The utilities have another option: closing some of their plants and possibly opting for energy sources like renewables or nuclear.
EPA has not made this option an explicit part of the plan. A recent Supreme Court decision prevented the agency from considering a so-called “generation transition” mandate, which requires an individual plant to set rules that can be enforced instead of forcing the entire system to switch to different energy sources.
But power plant operators will limit the viability of the new regulations for fossil fuels and decide to make the switch themselves.
“The competitiveness of renewables is putting a lot of pressure on fossil fuels right now, and this will accelerate the inevitable,” he said.