Coal-Fired Power Plant with Carbon Capture – Cutting Emissions or Increasing Them?

Petra Nova, the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture project, has been in commercial operation at the W. A. Parish Plant in Thompsons, Texas, southwest of Houston, since January 2017. The project offers no hope for combating climate change.

Petra Nova Facility

The Parish station has 10 generating units, but only unit 8 has been upgraded with carbon capture technology, and thus, the other 9 units are still emitting CO2. The project was supposed to divert 40% unit’s exhaust into a post-combustion capture (PCC) system, which designed to capture 90% of the CO2 in that stream. However, once the emissions from the gas-fired turbine that powers the carbon capture system and the emissions from the additional petroleum products resulting from enhanced oil recovery are taken into consideration, the total impact of the carbon capture system is actually an estimated 2% increase in CO2 emissions.

The Petra Nova has retrofit cost $1 billion and benefitted from a $190 million Clean Coal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. This huge amount of money has been invested to build a new coal power plant and enhance oil recovery by injecting 5,200 tons of carbon dioxide per day at West Ranch. However, NRG’s CEO has claimed that the Petra Nova CCS project “made both strategic and economic sense at $75 to $100 a barrel” and that “obviously [with West Texas Crude selling for less than US$50 a barrel], it does not currently make economic sense.”

Fossil fuel industries have promoted the use of CCS technology as a solution to enable the continued burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation. The coal industry has been seeking to increase its profit by lobbying Congress to get subsidies even though they are aware of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels on the human health and climate change. Moreover, fossil fuel industries have influenced the EPA to reduce penalties and long-term liability to increase the profitability of CCS projects at the expense of public health and the environment.

Petra Nova Carbon Capture

Health and Environmental Impacts of CCS Technologies Include:

  • Power plants that are capable of capturing carbon require 15-25% more energy than conventional plants in order to capture and store CO2. The mining, transportation, and burning of the additional fuel (usually coal) needed for CCS produces more CO2 emissions.
  • Particulate matter and Nitrogen Oxide are both expected to increase as a result of the additional fuel consumption in order to capture carbon dioxide. Particulate matter is identified by the World Health Organization to be the deadliest form of air pollution as its ability to enter the respiratory system
  • Due to the degradation of the solvents in the process of capturing carbon, Ammonia is expected to increase, which can lead to form particular matter in the atmosphere
  • Possible damages or any leakage in the pipeline or storage reservoir would result in serious environmental impacts
  • Gradual leakage in the storage site can damage fresh groundwater resources if the incorrect storage site is selected or the site is not prepared correctly
  • Injecting CO2 into aquifers can cause acidification of the water and increase its ability to break down the surrounding rocks, aggregate the potential for leakage into the soils or water table, which could worsen the impact of climate change in ocean sinks as a major reservoir of carbon dioxide.

Since burning fossil fuels is the main reason for global warming, do we really need another coal power plant with CCS capability? Isn’t better to allocate federal tax credits and incentives for building energy storage or solar/ wind farms to generate electricity?

Recently, the average cost of solar energy has decreased by $2.71 to $3.57 per watt and the wind energy cost has dropped to around $30/MWh to $60/MWh in 2017. Solar battery energy storage technologies have also advanced and costs have declined by $400 dollars per kilowatt hour (kWh) to $750/kWh. Therefore, it is more viable and profitable to invest in the clean renewable energy to cut CO2 emissions instead of building new coal power plants with CCS capability.

As a result of a growth in the world population and energy demand, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing and have accelerated climate change. In order to combat climate change, nations must shift their reliance away from fossil fuels to renewable energy instead of applying new technologies to produce “clean coal.” Relying on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies to rescue the world from climate change instead of focusing action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a dangerous gamble.


Have previous CCS projects been commercially successful?

  • Seattle-based Summit Power Group received $450 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a coal-fired carbon-capture power plant in Odessa, Texas that has never been built. Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on alcohol, lobbying, spa services and other questionable and unnecessary expenditures.
  • Southern Company, which was awarded $295 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to capture and store 1 million tons of CO2 from a coal plant in Alabama, ended up pulling out of the nearly $700 million project, deciding it would be more effective to make its clean energy investments elsewhere.
  • Kemper County, Mississippi, which is capable of burning natural gas as well as lignite coal and was expected to be fully operational and capable of using CCS by mid-2014 at a cost of $2.4 billion. However, in June 2017, the project was still not in service, and the cost had increased to $7.5 billion. Mississippi Power announced that they would suspend operations activities relating to the coal gasification process, and has also abandoned plans to use technology to capture its greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, Southern Company and Mississippi Power announced that the Kemper project would shift to burning only natural gas in an effort to manage costs.
  • In North Dakota, Basin Electric Power Cooperative put plans for carbon capture and storage on hold after investing $6 million in research, which found capturing 25% of the CO2 from one of its coal units would cost $500 million. The project was suspended in early 2009 due to the economic downturn, project costs, and increasing uncertainty with regulations and permitting for new coal-fired power plants. However, in May 2018, Wyoming legislators approved $15 million diverting CO2 from the power generation waste stream to manufacturing processes for new products, which is obviously a way to preserve and support the coal industry.

Other current negative emissions strategies and technologies include:

  • Afforestation and reforestation(AR)
  • Land management to increase soil carbon(LM)
  • Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)
  • Enhanced weathering(EW)
  • Direct capture of CO2(DACCS)
  • Ocean fertilization(OIF)

If you’re interested to learn more about these carbon sequestration strategies, follow us here for further posts. We will discuss more about the challenges, drawbacks, and benefits of each strategy.