While several carbon capture technologies are in the works and have developed small-scale models, industry representatives said they need more research and development funding to cross the threshold into commercial viability.
Speaking before coal, power and government leaders last week at a Carbon Utilization Research Council event, several people working to develop and commercialize carbon capture technology noted the difficulty in garnering private-sector support because of the investment risk.
Noah Deich, executive director of Carbon180, a nonprofit that works with experts to transform carbon from waste to an asset, said he used to see "fairly quizzical looks" a few years ago whenever he discussed carbon capture and utilization technologies. Over the last year, that has completely changed, he said.
"What we've heard from everyone in the room is that they see this as the future," he said.
But many of these potential investors are not ready to cut checks, Deich said, though they see carbon capture as a potential growth market. First, there needs to be another boost in research and development funding to move "these exciting innovations across that really early-stage Valley of Death."
"The investors are there," he said. "They want to deploy capital but are not going to until a lot of that technical risk has been taken out at the very early stage."
The technology will become more cost-efficient once it is more widely deployed, said Walker Dimmig, a principal at 8 Rivers Capital LLC, which co-owns NET Power LLC, a partnership working to create a natural gas carbon capture power system. Some people believe a second Petra Nova carbon capture facility would be 20% less expensive than the original, he said, because the first version had more engineering and contingencies costs.
"These technologies, they take time," Dimmig said. "They take a lot of money and they take, I think, a strong stomach to sort of see them from start to finish."
Kipp Coddington, director of the University of Wyoming's Carbon Management Institute, said federal funding is "imperative" in maintaining teams of carbon capture researchers. His team is almost entirely funded by federal grants.
Once the money runs out, he said, researchers turn to other projects.
"So we all talk about workforce issues in terms of utilities and coal miners and the like, and that is certainly true," Coddington said. "But what you also need to realize [is] there actually is an R&D workforce as well. That workforce, at least at the University of Wyoming, lives off of grants."
There needs to be another technological revolution, similar to one that occurred after the implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and the Acid Rain Program, to clean up fossil fuel plants, said Cecile Conroy, director of government affairs for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers' political and legislative departments.
"A lot of really good-paying jobs and a lot of highly skilled men and women … are going to be left behind in this transition if something isn't done to really get the technology off the ground," Conroy said.
The coal sector will need "a stable of technologies" ready to deploy, said John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships at the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center.
"I don't think we're going to arrive at an answer," he said. "I think what we're going to arrive at is many, many, many answers over time."