David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
Citing a weak economy and the "current uncertain status of U.S. climate policy," utility American Electric Power has decided not to proceed with plans to expand CO2 capture and storage technology (CCS) efforts at its Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia.
"At this time it doesn’t make economic sense to continue work on the commercial scale CCS project," AEP CEO Michael Morris said in a prepared statement. The project at Mountaineer had captured as much as 5.5 metric tons of CO2 per hour—or roughly 1.5 percent of the coal-burning power plant’s emissions—and pumped it more than 2,000 meters deep for storage in porous rock. All told, the demonstration phase of the project sequestered 37,000 metric tons of CO2 since 2009, according to AEP.
The project had been hailed as a "turning point" in the fight to restrain the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change but, in the absence of a federal program to impose a cost on CO2 emissions or support from local regulators to allow AEP to recoup the cost of the project, AEP could not support the cost of the next phase—estimated at more than $650 million.
While the Mountaineer project was one of the most advanced in the world—combining both CO2 capture and storage—other CCS projects continue to move forward, including a similar demonstration project employing a different CO2 capture technology at a Southern Company power plant in Alabama and the FutureGen project in Illinois. Pilot projects from around the world suggest CO2 capture and storage could be accomplished at a cost of as little as 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to engineering company Alstom, which makes the technology.
Given a world that relies on burning fossil fuels for more than 80 percent of its energy, developing CO2 capture and storage technology remains a necessity not a luxury, albeit a necessity no one seems to want to pay for. "We need to develop the technologies that enable us to use our fossil fuels in a clean way," Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told Scientific American in 2010. Despite federal cost-sharing, the development of CCS just got even slower.