By Jeff Tollefson of Nature magazine

Given the current political climate, it did not come as much of a surprise when the chief executive of one of the largest utility companies in the U.S. addressed the tenth annual Conference on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in Pittsburgh, Penn., this week with a talk questioning the viability of carbon-storage ventures in the next few years.

Michael Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power (AEP), headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, said that the energy industry needs a signal from politicians in Washington, D.C.

AEP is trying to scale up a small sequestration demonstration project at its Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia, but state regulators have declined the company's request to increase electricity prices to help raise the US$670 million needed. The U.S. Department of Energy has committed to paying 50 percent of the funds, but that isn't enough to keep the project moving, and Morris says that regulators don't see why local customers should pay for what is supposed to be a national demonstration project.

"Carbon is a political issue, capture and storage is a technical issue, and they are as different as night and day," says Morris. He believes that with time, industry can surmount the technical issues, but it is not a cheap proposition.

AEP's situation is not unique, and some fear that the abandonment of climate legislation in Washington last year could delay a host of sequestration projects sponsored by the Department of Energy, including FutureGen, the government's signature project to create a low-emission coal-fuelled power plant in Illinois.

Howard Herzog, who researches sequestration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says that most of the eight or nine projects under way in the United States are now in doubt.

"A lot of the momentum that has been built up is just going to grind to a halt," says Herzog. "My hope is that we will see a few projects go ahead and serve as an example of what can be done when the politics turn around."

Global efforts

Internationally, the outlook is mixed. Some projects have stalled--including Australia's ZeroGen initiative to create a clean coal power station, which was dropped by the Queensland government last year--but many others are still moving and new ones are cropping up, says Barry Jones, general manager of policy and membership at the Global CCS Institute in Canberra.

An initial wave of monetary commitments to sequestration work in 2007-08 stumbled against the economic crisis and the United Nations' failure to settle a global-warming policy. Nevertheless, says Jones, countries are moving forward independently and might yet be able to meet the G8 nations' goal of establishing 20 large-scale projects by 2020.

Canada has been ramping up its carbon-capture work, for instance, and commitments are likely to continue. Seeing an opportunity to offset some of the emissions from its oil-sands development, the province of Alberta committed Can$2 billion (US$2.1 billion) to sequestration in 2008 and is now working out agreements with commercial partners on four projects.

Last week, Saskatchewan approved a Can$1.2-billion project--funded in part by Can$240 million from the Canadian government--that would pump roughly one million tons of carbon dioxide from a newly rebuilt Boundary Dam power plant into an old oil field.

Maxwell Ball, manager for clean coal technologies at SaskPower in Regina, which owns the plant, says that the company was surprised to learn that it would be cheaper in the long term to keep burning coal at Boundary Dam and sell the carbon dioxide to oil companies to boost production in the oil field than to build a new natural-gas plant. The move allowed the company to reuse much of its old equipment, rather than starting from scratch.

Estimating that most large-scale projects need something on the order of Can$1 billion to become economically viable, Ball says that the Boundary Dam project wouldn't be able to go forward without a steady stream of revenue from the sale of CO2. "Somewhere, somebody has to put that money up, and the question is who."

The international goal is to roll out large-scale demonstrations this decade to set the stage for commercial deployment in the next, but the challenge is daunting.

Worldwide, carbon storage has the capability to provide more than 15 percent of the emissions reductions needed to limit the rise in atmospheric CO2 to 450 parts per million by 2050, an oft-cited target associated with a roughly 50-percent chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees, but that would involve 3,200 projects sequestering some 150 gigatons of CO2, says Juho Lipponen, who heads the CCS unit of the International Energy Agency in Paris. That is roughly 70 times the U.S.'s total carbon emissions from electricity generation in 2009.

"It's not particularly surprising that things are moving slowly," says Jones, suggesting that the real test will come as projects move toward construction in the next few years. "What you don't want happening," he adds, "is people losing faith and walking away."

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on May 5, 2011.