EPA outlines 30% cut in power-gen CO2 by 2030: what’s the role for carbon capture and use, algae?

June 3, 2014 |


EPA comes down hard on CO2, with proposed rule calling for deep emission cuts, but opts for highly-flexible, state-by-state approach

Carbon Capture and Use not deemed a key strategy, but algae advocates aim to change that thinking.

In Washington, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy proposed a climate action rule that, by 2030, will cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels, which is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year. According to Administrator McCarthy, the rule will also cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent as a co-benefit; Avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and up to 490,000 missed work or school days; and shrink electricity bills roughly 8 percent by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand in the electricity system.

She introduced what she described “a commonsense plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants. States, cities and businesses across the country are already taking action to address the risks of climate change. EPA’s proposal builds on those actions and is flexible – reflecting that different states have a different mix of sources and opportunities, and reflecting the important role of states as full partners with the federal government in cutting pollution.”

On climate change, the Administrator said, “The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction keep piling up. Climate inaction is costing us more money, in more places, more often. 2012 was the second most expensive year in U.S. history for natural disasters. As our seas rise, so do insurance premiums, property taxes, and food prices. If we do nothing, in our grandkids’ lifetimes, temperatures could rise 10 degrees and seas could rise 4 feet.”

EPA will accept comment on the proposal for 120 days after publication in the Federal Register and will hold four public hearings on the proposed Clean Power Plan during the week of July 28 in the following cities: Denver, Atlanta, Washington, DC and Pittsburgh. Based on this input, EPA will finalize standards next June following the schedule laid out in the June 2013 Presidential Memorandum. 

Power plants account for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“While there are limits in place,” the EPA noted, “for the level of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution that power plants can emit, there are currently no national limits on carbon pollution levels. 

With the Clean Power Plan, EPA is proposing guidelines that build on trends already underway in states and the power sector to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants, making them more efficient and less polluting.”

All-of-the-above strategy

“We know that coal and natural gas play a significant role in a diverse national energy mix,” said McCarthy. “This Plan does not change that—it recognizes the opportunity to modernize aging plants, increase efficiency, and lower pollution. That’s part of an all-of-the-above strategy.”

“States also have the opportunity to shift their reliance to more efficient, less polluting plants. Or, instead of low carbon sources, there’s always the opportunity to shift to “no” carbon sources like nuclear, wind, and solar. Since 2009, wind energy in America has tripled and solar has grown ten-fold. Our nuclear fleet continues to supply zero carbon baseload power. Homegrown clean energy is posting record revenues and creating jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.”

State-oriented approach

The Clean Power Plan will be implemented through a state-federal partnership under which states identify a path forward using either current or new electricity production and pollution control policies to meet the goals of the proposed program. The proposal provides guidelines for states to develop plans to meet state-specific goals to reduce carbon pollution and gives them the flexibility to design a program that makes the most sense for their unique situation. States can choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs. It allows them to work alone to develop individual plans or to work together with other states to develop multi-state plans.

Also included in today’s proposal is a flexible timeline for states to follow for submitting plans to the agency—with plans due in June 2016, with the option to use a two-step process for submitting final plans if more time is needed. States that have already invested in energy efficiency programs will be able to build on these programs during the compliance period to help make progress toward meeting their goal.

States already on board

To date, 47 states have utilities that run demand-side energy efficiency programs, 38 have renewable portfolio standards or goals, and 10 have market-based greenhouse gas emissions programs. Together, the agency believes that these programs represent a proven, common-sense approach to cutting carbon pollution—one in which electricity is generated and used as efficiently as possible and which promotes a greater reliance on lower-carbon power sources.

Those are all opportunities at plants, but what about at the plug? Existing technologies can squeeze the most out of every electron, helping us use electricity more efficiently in our homes and businesses. More efficiency means we need less electricity to cool our refrigerators or charge our phones. For the fuel we burn, let’s get the most bang for our buck. 

All of these options are not new ideas. They’re based on proven technologies, proven approaches, and are part of the ongoing story of energy progress in America. Our plan doesn’t prescribe—it propels that progress already underway. 

And like I said, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. States can pick from a portfolio of options to meet regional, state, and community needs—from ones I mentioned, or the many more I didn’t, and in any combination. It’s up to states to mix and match to get to their goal.

Where is Carbon Capture and Storage, and Carbon Capture and Use?

For the biofuels industry, a key fear was that the proposed Rule would embrace Carbon Capture & Storage, but ignore Carbon Capture and Use technologies — like algae-based fuels, or others proposing to use low-cost power-plant supplied CO2 as a key feedstock for renewable fuels and chemicals.

The concern was that utilities would feel obligated to use underground storage — but not partner with algae companies for CCU technologies – as a mandated part of their carbon emission reduction plan.

Overtly, the proposed Rule embraces neither CCS nor CCU as a preferred strategy for existing power plants that do not have CCU or CCS units in place. Instead, it sees CCS as a viable strategy only for new plant construction.

How CCU and CCS compare

It really comes down to how you measure sequestration.

In the case of Carbon Capture and Use — in some cases, there is direct sequestration of CO2 inside a stable chemical or material — e.g. spandex made from butadiene in turn derived in part from from CO2. In other cases, the CO2 is sequestered until a fuel is burned, when the CO2 is then released into the atmosphere. This has troubled many, who have come to regard CCU as only a temporary time-shift of the emission, compared to the “sequestered now and forever” CO2 in stabilized CO2 underground storage, or CCS.

Another way to look at it is this: products that use CO2 and replace a barrel of oil, are not only sequestering CO2 directly from the power plant emission (for a while in the case of the fuel, or for the long-term in the case of a material), they are displacing a barrel of oil that otherwise would be pumped and burned. So, you have the opportunity to go carbon-negative with CO2 used by algae to make materials, or carbon neutral in the case of the fuel (the emission from the fuel is offset by the carbon savings from the avoided barrel).

The Algae Biomass Organization’s reaction on CCU and CCS

“The saying “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is an appropriate metaphor for the approach to CO2 emissions reductions recently.  The “nail” of CO2 emissions, it is believed, can only be addressed by the “hammer” of regulations to bury, sequester or otherwise get rid of the waste.

Algae digest CO2 as they grow, returning clean oxygen to the environment while they produce oils and proteins. These oils and proteins can be used in the production of transportation fuels, animal feed, chemicals and food products. The more CO2 algae can consume, the faster they grow. As such, the US algae industry has a vested interest in obtaining as much CO2 as possible.

By co-locating algae production facilities at coal or gas fired power plants and onsite at other industrial emitters, they can become customers for waste CO2. One such demonstration facility, using CO2 from a coal fired power plant, has already been built in Kentucky. Another in Iowa is using the CO2 produced from ethanol production to create proteins for animal feed. This process is known as Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU).

The EPA stopped short of considering CCU as an approved strategy in its new rules for Existing Sources, so we will continue our efforts with EPA to try to get CCU qualified as an approved mitigation strategy.  Including utilization in this proposed rule will ensure that the new regulations accelerate the adoption of CCU technologies, like algae.  Furthermore, we look forward to being a resource for EGU’s to help them comply with the proposed rule.

Beneficial utilization of CO2 is the only option to turn the market forces and economics of waste CO2 into a ROI-driven, growth industry that will turn a huge problem into an economic opportunity. In doing so, we can achieve a rare trifecta – the reduction of emissions, the creation of jobs and economic development across the country, and a contribution to our food and energy security.

The full EPA proposal, fact sheets and more

Fact sheets and details about the proposed rule available here.

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