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US DOE wants to cut carbon capture costs 50%, official touts CO2 already stored

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy said June 10 in a webcast that the cost of capturing carbon needs to be reduced 50% to about $30/tonne of CO2 to facilitate greater use of carbon capture, utilization and storage.

In the same webcast, an official from the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, or NETL, said more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 has thus far been captured and buried in mile-deep containment wells in the U.S., and that “no leaks” have been seen.

NETL Assistant Secretary Steve Winberg and senior research fellow Grant Bromhal both spoke on the webcast on Innovation in Carbon Management, which was hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Winberg said “for decades,” carbon capture utilization and sequestration was “geared almost exclusively toward capturing emissions from coal-fired power plants.” He said under “the new normal” the DOE is operating under, “we are looking at the enormous potential these technologies have for the oil and gas industries and other industrial sectors, and even for direct air capturing of CO2 in the atmosphere, often referred to as DAC.”

The DOE is also looking at expanding the use of carbon capture technologies “for low emission and low-cost production of hydrogen," Winberg noted. He added, “We are also looking at new ways through big data and other advances to better see the sub-surface and to advance geological carbon storage capability.”

The Trump administration, Winberg said, has spent $400 million to advance carbon capture, utilization and storage, or CCUS, technology. He pointed to the Petra Nova project at Unit 8 of NRG Energy Inc.'s coal-fired W.A. Parish facility near Houston as “the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture system.” The project came online in December 2016 and sells and pipes compressed CO2 for enhanced oil recovery to an oil field 82 miles away.

However, moving new technologies to market will require reducing the cost of the capture side of the process by 50%, ultimately getting it down to about $30/tonne, Winberg asserted. There will still be the CO2 compression cost, the pipeline cost and the injection cost.

“The majority of the cost of the CCUS value chain is in the equipment and the technology necessary to capture the CO2 molecule, and that is where our focus has been—getting that cost down,” Winberg said.

Burying captured CO2 in what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifies as Class-6 wells still is the most frequently used way to manage CO2. Bromhal noted that NETL looks for two things when a containment well is needed: enough space at a prospective site to do the drilling, and the availability of appropriate sealing material available, “such as shale, salt or other rock."

“We have learned how to do this — to keep fluids in the ground," Bromhal maintained. "We monitor the seals so CO2 doesn’t migrate or impact groundwater.” In all the containment wells NETL has engineered, “none have seen any leakage." Bromhal said that in only one state — North Dakota — have state regulators sought to have a hand in monitoring the Class-6 wells.

Asked what CCUS cooperation there has been with other countries, Bromhal said NETL has been following the Norwegian project of capturing and storing CO2 from natural gas beneath the floor of the North Sea.

Adam Rosenberg, the staff director for the House Energy Subcommittee on Science, Space and Technology, said on the webcast that commercializing CCUS is “still a challenge,” and that an investment on a scale of about $1 billion in a “full range” of carbon removal technologies is needed.

Rosenberg noted that said H.R. 3607, or the Fossil Energy Research Development Act that is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, has passed out of committee.

“We see support of CCUS as a component of a climate solution. We will need these technologies brought about in a more accelerated way," Rosenberg said. But he admitted that a “political divide” still exists regarding CCUS, with a “resistance from the other side to support anything beyond basic research.”

Rosenberg maintained that the technologies "can’t be commercialized without federal and regulatory support unless you are using a technology with a clear revenue path.”

Sarah Ladislaw, the webcast moderator and Center for Strategic & International Studies vice president and director of its Energy Security and Climate Change program, asked about public confidence and people “who are skeptical about bringing CO2 under the ground for a long period of time."

Rosenberg said H.R.3607 “will increase monitoring and verification” of containment wells "where there have been many examples of non-events."

“We need this process to be normal and boring,” Rosenberg said.

Jeff Ryser is a reporter with S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.