Our country’s energy landscape is rapidly changing. For the first time in decades we’re producing more barrels of oil in the United States than we import from other countries, thanks in part to shale oil production. Newly developed natural gas resources have enabled the U.S. to begin transitioning from a modest net importer of natural gas to a net exporter by 2017. Increased use of natural gas in the power sector has helped reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity generation by more than 200 million metric tons since 2000. And when it comes to renewables, the reduced cost of photovoltaic solar is driving new projects—solar provided 32% of new domestic power generation capacity in 2014.
This is all good news for America’s energy security in a carbon-constrained future. But we still have work to do. We need to push the envelope to develop renewable energy sources, and the Department of Energy (DOE) is working hard at that task. At the same time, to advance our goals of environmental sustainability, energy security, and economic competitiveness, we will need all of our domestic energy sources. That’s why we need to continue refining technologies to reduce the carbon intensity of coal-fired power generation—which provides nearly 40% of our electricity—by capturing and storing the CO2 these plants would otherwise emit. So for the past decade, the DOE has been partnering with industry, academia, and state governments to demonstrate the readiness of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies.
CCS is not a technology that may work in some distant future—it’s working now. And there’s no better proof than this: In April, DOE-funded projects surpassed 10 million metric tons of CO2 stored. That’s the equivalent of taking more than 2 million passenger vehicles off the nation’s roads for one year.
While we’re safely and permanently storing large quantities of CO2 underground, we’re also working on beneficial CO2 utilization. Enhanced oil recovery (EOR)—storing CO2 in depleted oil fields to produce incremental barrels of oil—is one important pathway. We’re also exploring ways to convert CO2 into useful products. For instance, Skyonic’s “Skymine” project began operations last year to convert CO2 from a cement plant into commercial products like baking soda and hydrochloric acid.
Projects like these are providing valuable information needed to commercially deploy CCS, and not just for coal and industrial facilities; we’re also looking to leverage existing research and development (R&D) to apply CCS to natural gas–based systems.
Any transformational endeavor will face difficulties, and the drive to commercialize CCS is no exception. In February, the DOE withdrew federal support for the FutureGen 2.0 project in Illinois because it was unable to meet statutory schedule constraints.
Still, we’re making important strides. The 10 million metric tons of CO2 stored is just the start. In 2013, Air Products commenced operation of a DOE-sponsored CO2 capture project that will result in 1.6 to 3.1 million barrels of additional oil recovered through EOR. In 2014, NRG started construction on another DOE-sponsored project, the world’s largest post-combustion capture retrofit demonstration project, which will capture 1.6 million metric tons of CO2 per year and produce an additional 60 million barrels of oil through EOR. And though it has faced cost and schedule challenges, Southern Company’s Kemper integrated gasification combined cycle project is expected to begin operations in 2016.
Commitment to CCS
Going forward, the DOE’s commitment to CCS is clear. Of the $560 million that the president requested for DOE fossil energy R&D in FY 2016, $369 million is geared toward our CCS and Power Systems R&D. That’s on top of the $6 billion we’ve invested in CCS since 2009 and the $8 billion in the DOE’s loan guarantee program dedicated to fossil energy projects. Moreover, the president’s budget includes two new refundable tax credits totaling $2 billion for new and existing power plants that employ CCS.
What we’re doing in the U.S. is critical, but the nature of our energy and climate challenges requires a global response. The good news is there are 22 large-scale CCS projects in operation or under construction around the world. Still, the U.S. has more major CCS demonstration projects than any other country, and the DOE is taking a leadership role to achieve commercial deployment of these technologies globally.
To do that, we’re working with international partners to share the expertise and lessons learned that will help us overcome the technical, regulatory, and policy challenges to CCS commercialization. Most recently, we announced our intention to collaborate with Shell Canada to validate advanced monitoring technologies at Shell’s industrial CCS project in Saskatchewan, which will capture 1 million tons of CO2 annually. Additionally, we and China will lead an international consortium to establish a major new project in China that will monitor the storage of industrial CO2. We’ll also work with China to demonstrate a new pathway for CO2 utilization through a project that will capture and store CO2 while producing freshwater.
We’re also engaged in multinational efforts on CCS, including our leadership of the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum’s Policy Group and the International Energy Agency’s Working Party on Fossil Fuels. And through our work on the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, we helped develop a recommendation for CCS parity that will be considered at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris this year.
Storing 10 million metric tons of CO2 is an important achievement, but we still have work to do. And the DOE’s robust R&D and international outreach is laying the groundwork to ensure that CCS will help us meet our energy and climate challenges—and secure U.S. leadership in the global clean energy economy. ■
— Christopher A. Smith is the assistant secretary for fossil energy in the U.S. Department of Energy.