Political leaders and researchers say a new project to capture carbon dioxide at a central Kentucky power plant is a crucial step to continue burning coal for electricity in a time of tougher environmental regulations.
The $19.5 million testing facility under construction at the E.W. Brown Generating Station near Harrodsburg would capture and separate carbon dioxide from the emission stream after the coal is burned.
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Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear on Monday called the project "a big step forward for solving one of the biggest challenges facing the Commonwealth today, and that challenge is carbon emissions."
The technology is seen as a fix to keep old coal-fired power plants operating under tighter federal environmental rules. Last month, the Obama administration unveiled new regulations meant to cut carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 30 percent in 15 years. The E.W. Brown plant has coal-fired units that date to the 1950s.
So far, carbon capture has remained in the development phase due to high upfront investment costs and recent cheaper prices for natural gas that has enticed utilities to switch to burning gas to achieve lower emissions.
The U.S. Department of Energy gave about $14 million for the Kentucky project and it is sponsoring another 15 post-combustion capture projects around the country.
Speakers at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday at the site of the new facility said carbon capture will be crucial to the future of the coal industry.
"Coal is our most abundant fossil energy resource, we have hundreds of years of domestic reserves in this country," said John Litynski, carbon capture program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy's fossil energy division. And carbon capture "technologies are going to be necessary and commercially available for coal to play a significant role while addressing greenhouse gas issues."
Earlier this month, the Energy Department broke ground on the country's largest post-combustion carbon capture project, the Petra Nova project at a power plant near Houston. The project is expected to capture about 1.4 million tons of carbon dioxide a year at the plant. The smaller-scale Kentucky project would catch and isolate a sample of the carbon dioxide for analysis before releasing it back into the emission stream exiting through the stack.
Officials and political leaders on Monday acknowledged that a cost-efficient method of capturing carbon at power plants is a long way off, but they said test projects are crucial to its future.
Rodney Andrews, director of the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research, said electric utilities are just beginning to invest in the technology.
"Until the (environmental) regulations come out and you know what they are, you're not going to invest the kind of money that it takes to do this process and put it in place," he said. "In all cases, what it comes back to is how do we do this more efficiently and how do we do this at lower cost."
The facility is expected to be completed later this year and testing will conclude in 2016.