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US DOE official says carbon capture nearing commercial viability

The private sector could make "some very exciting announcements" about carbon capture technology within weeks, a U.S. Department of Energy official said at a March 19 industry event.

Lou Hrkman, deputy assistant secretary of clean coal and carbon management, said during a panel at the 8th Annual D.C. Forum on CCS that it is an exciting time for technology that can capture, store and utilize carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel-burning power plants. State regulators may be able to consider including carbon capture in their long-term plans in the next year or two "because the technology will be viable," he said.

Since the 2018 election, he said, his office has been called to brief lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on the process, also known as CCS or CCUS.

"I think they're coming to a consensus of common sense that if you're serious about decarbonizing the energy sector, you have to have CCUS," Hrkman said. "It’s a good time to be talking about it."

Some fossil fuel advocates have rallied behind carbon capture as a means to burn the fuels in a more environmentally friendly way. But the technology is expensive, which has limited the number of power plants implementing carbon capture technologies.

In an interview following the panel, Hrkman said capturing a ton of carbon costs about $40. The department is working to lower that price to $30 a ton, something he said could draw more investment and interest in the technology and could be achieved in the next two to three years.

Advocates for carbon capture were pleased by the passage of the FUTURE Act in 2018, which extended and expanded the federal 45Q tax credit for CCUS projects, but the industry is awaiting guidance from the IRS on how to use the credit. Hrkman said Energy Secretary Rick Perry sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin a few months ago asking the IRS to speed up the process but did not hear back.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a 2018 report that included carbon capture as a means of limiting climate change. While there are 18 large-scale carbon capture facilities around the world, reports have called for 1,000 to 3,000 by 2040, said Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute.

Governments around the world need policy in place to attract investment into carbon capture development, he said, adding that the U.S. has likely the best policy in place.

"If that were to happen, I honestly believe that you will get that 1,000 to 2,000 plants in that sort of time frame," he told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "… I think that those numbers are achievable, but you need that policy and you need it soon."

The department recently announced a funding opportunity for $32 million to study retrofitting up to three commercial plants using carbon capture technology, Hrkman said. It is also working on coal plants of the future that can compete with gas.

"It's really an integrated CCUS machine," Hrkman said. "It will come with near-zero emissions, and it's something we're looking forward to."

The department is pursuing technology for "carbon-free fossil energy" as well, which will be available "just over the horizon," he said.

"Everybody knows you cannot have 100% renewable [energy]," Hrkman said. "Everybody knows that. They know it's uneconomic, and they know it's unreliable. The option which we haven't had to enter into the conversation yet is an economic, viable alternative."