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Alstom's answer to climate change: Bury the carbon

A West Virginia power plant demonstrates how carbon capture and storage--burying the carbon 8,000 feet underground--can secure as much as 90 percent of the CO2 from a plant's emission stream.

Bob Hilton, AlstomAt a power plant in West Virginia, Alstom—a Paris-based company that focuses on power, transportation and smart grid--is demonstrating how carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be a viable solution for climate change. CCS involves burying the carbon emissions from a power plant 8,000 feet underground. According to Alstom, this process can capture as much as 90 percent of the CO2 from a plant’s emission stream.

I recently talked to Bob Hilton, Alstom’s vice president of government affairs for Power Technologies, who is based in the company’s U.S. headquarters office in Washington. We talked about how CCS works, the challenges of burying carbon deep in the ground and why we should look at this as an energy solution.

What is carbon capture storage?

CCS is basically the idea that in order to achieve the carbon reduction in the atmosphere and to hopefully reverse global warming, we need to capture the carbon. CCS is the group of technologies that allows us to capture the CO2 from the emissions of a fossil fuel power plant and store it safely in underground reservoirs.

The capture of CO2 can take place before, during or after the fuel is burned. In post-combustion processes, the emissions, or flue gases, from a power plant are diverted into a CCS unit, where the gas is washed with a solvent that binds the CO2 and removes it from the gas stream. It’s like a big shower. The bound CO2 is then diverted from the flue gas and separated from the solvent in a process called regeneration, which allows us to ‘recycle’ the solvent and use it to capture more CO2. At this point, we have created a purified, concentrated stream of CO2.

From here, the CO2 is pressurized and pumped into saline aquifers (porous rock formations) up to 8,000 feet below ground level. It stays there. In the long term, it will react with the water, react with other rocks down there and ultimately form more rocks. That’s why we feel this is a perfectly safe thing to do.

Where is this happening now?

The one plant in the U.S. that’s doing this is Mountaineer Power Plant of American Electric Power in New Haven, West Virginia. At this demonstration project, we have shown that CCS can effectively capture as much as 90 percent of the CO2 from a plant's emission stream.

What is Alstom’s role there?

We provide some management. We designed and built the plant. They have taken over the operation. It’s the largest of its kind at the moment. It’s designed to collect 100,000 tons of CO2 a year. CCS is a technology that’s in the process of being scaled up to commercial. We have three projects after this that will be 1.5 million tons to 1.8 million tons of CO2. One will be at the same site; the second will be in Alberta, Canada; the third will be in Poland.

Tell me about the role of CCS in the climate change discussion.

Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas account for as much as 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions [from power generation, which accounts for almost 40 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions]. Wind is great, but you only make power when the wind blows. Fossil fuels will play a dominant role in the global energy mix for several decades to come. So it’s vital that moving forward we need to make coal and gas clean. We have to make what we have more efficient. CCS is what we have to do for the [climate change] goals we’ve set.

CCS is a critically important weapon in the fight against climate change because it is a technology that can be deployed in the short-term to lower carbon emissions from the power generation sector. Alstom is pursuing the development of several CCS technologies, but our primary focus is on processes that can be retrofitted onto existing power plants thereby lowering environmental impacts today even as we continue the expansion of renewable sources.

Why aren’t more companies doing this?

There are a fair number of people doing it. I could rattle off probably 10 companies that are actively involved, but the reality is that it’s very big and very expensive. The one we have now is entirely paid for by Alstom and American Electric Power, but the three larger ones are co-funded by governments.

What challenges do you face in growing this sector?

Other than scaling up and the cost, there are additional things we need to address. We still have issues we have to face in terms of long-term liability for the CO2 in the ground. What we’re doing from a science perspective is completely safe. But geysers are CO2. There’s a lot of this stored, just like there has been oil stored in the earth for millennium. We know it will stay there, but the nature of our society is such that there will always be someone who wants to have an insurance policy. Right now, because we don’t have any guidance, the states are making their own rules. Another issue is who owns the space.

For those who understand how CCS works, what is the public response?

I think the response has been what I would call mostly positive. It varies a little depending on how well the people running the project take care of the project and inform the public. In New Haven, for example, they have gone to great lengths to let [the public] know what they’re doing.

If people understand the concept of climate change and what needs to be done and why it needs to be done, they generally can accept CCS. It’s where the carbon came from and we’re basically putting the carbon back in the earth. Scientifically, it’s fine. But there are a lot of people who are very skeptical. It’s just telling the right story and getting people to understand.

What’s next?

Alstom has 11 demos of different fuels, different technologies. We’re moving, and we’re moving on a good timeline. Our timeline has always been to have this commercial by 2015, because that would allow us to have general deployment by the late teens, early ‘20s, so we could be well on our way to hitting the targets that we need to hit.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com