The Trump era is unlikely to be known for aggressive climate action, but there is one front on which scientists, engineers, and policymakers may yet make a little progress over the next few years: carbon capture technology.
On February 15, the Department of Energy announced that it would be doling out $6.5 million to advance nine projects that could lead to “transformational coal technologies.” These projects, which are still in the conceptual phase, were selected following an announcement last summer that the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy would be putting $50 million toward the eventual construction and operation of two high-efficiency, low-emissions coal plants.
This is the sort of stuff energy wonks are referring to when they use the term “clean coal” (in contrast with Trump, who seems to think the term refers to, uh, all coal all the time). And the carbon capture and storage technologies needed to make such tech a reality could help decarbonize other sectors of our economy too, like manufacturing. Further down the line, carbon capture technologies could even lead to plants that suck CO2 straight out of the air.
Bob Perciasepe, President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, called the DOE’s announcement “a small but welcome commitment” toward technologies that represent “an insurance policy” for the climate.
“We believe, globally, since there’s so many fossil fuel generating electricity plants all over the world, and climate change is a global issue, the chance of all those plants being gone by mid century are pretty near zero,” Perciasepe said.
“I wish the federal government was doing more, and I know some people will look askance at this [new DOE investment],” he continued. “But we need to be investing in this technology.”
There have been a few other positive developments on the carbon capture front of late. For starters, Trump didn’t get away with obliterating the DOE’s carbon capture research programs, something he had proposed doing in his FY-2018 budget request. Instead, last week’s Congressional budget deal restored $200 million to DOE Fossil Energy R&D programs for “clean coal technologies.”
A tax credit in the recently-passed budget bill provides further incentives for technologies that pull carbon from the air. Julio Friedmann, former principal deputy assistant secretary at the Office of Fossil Energy, told MIT Tech Review he thinks “we’ll see dozens of [carbon-capture] projects appear in the next couple of years that could not have happened otherwise.”
Taken together, Perciasepe says, there’s grounds to be cautiously optimistic that progress on carbon capture won’t grind to a screeching halt in the same way that more direct forms of federal climate action have.
“It seems there’s enough bi-partisan support in Congress that we can help keep the—no pun intended—flame on this stuff,” he said.
The nine projects splitting the $6.5 million in DOE seed funding for feasibility studies include a post-combustion carbon capture coal plant at the University of Kentucky, a “supercritical CO2 cycle” pilot plant at the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center, and a high-efficiency coal plant with carbon capture at the Southwest Research Institute. A subset of the projects will move on to design and construction phases.
It’s a start. But with less than two dozen large-scale carbon capture plants currently operating across the world, and individual projects running into the billions of dollars, the feds are going to have to pony up a lot more to make Trump’s “beautiful clean coal” future a reality.