Project Management Institute

Capturing carbon

Costly power plant projects aim to mitigate climate change while still burning coal.

Carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise, and the coal-fired power plants that produce the greenhouse gas aren’t going away any time soon. Globally, projects are trying to mitigate climate change by capturing the carbon that these plants emit—before it reaches the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide accounts for nearly three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. From 2013 to 2014, carbon dioxide emissions increased 2.5 percent. They will continue their upward trajectory as the demand for coal, one of the cheapest fuels, grows along with the global population, which will surge 38 percent over the next four decades—from 6.9 billion in 2010 to 9.6 billion by 2050.

Interior of the Boundary Dam Power Station

Interior of the Boundary Dam Power Station


Carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects collect carbon waste and then trap it in the ground. “CCS is the only known technology that will enable us to continue to use fossil fuels and also de-carbonize the energy sector,” Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the Paris, France-based International Energy Agency, said in October. “As fossil fuel consumption is expected to continue for decades, deployment of CCS is essential.”

As a disposal system, “CCS, like sewage disposal, is absolutely vital,” says Jon Gibbins, PhD, director of the UK CCS Research Centre and professor of power plant engineering and carbon capture at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Carbon capture and storage is the only known technology that will enable us to continue to use fossil fuels and also de-carbonize the energy sector.”

—Maria van der Hoeven, International Energy Agency, Paris, France

One North American project has proven that coal-fired power plants and CCS can be a successful partnership. In October, Canada saw the opening of the world’s first large-scale coal-fired power plant outfitted with CCS technology. The Boundary Dam Power Station in Saskatchewan, owned by the utility company SaskPower International, burns coal while reducing its carbon pollution by 90 percent. The 110-megawatt US$1.2 billion facility will cut its own carbon dioxide emissions by about 1 million metric tons annually—the equivalent of taking a quarter million cars off the road.

A project in Kemper, Mississippi, USA will be the first large-scale plant with CCS in the United States, where coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution. The 582-mega-watt Kemper County Energy Facility, set to begin operations in 2016, plans to capture 65 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions. The plant, owned by utility provider Southern Company, makes use of lignite coal, a lighter fuel source with a higher moisture content.


Coal-powered power plants are capturing the carbon they produce.


Location Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada
Carbon Capture Target 90 percent
Budget US$1.2 billion
Completion 2014




Location Brooks, Alberta, Canada
Carbon Capture Target 20 percent
Budget US$3 billion
Scheduled Completion 2019


Location Kemper, Mississippi, USA
Carbon Capture Target 65 percent
Budget US$6.1 billion
Scheduled Completion 2016


Location near Houston, Texas, USA
Carbon Capture Target 90 percent
Budget US$1 billion
Scheduled Completion 2016


Location Maasvlakte power station, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
Carbon Capture Target 90 percent
Budget US$1.6 billion
Scheduled Completion 2017

The rate of the world’s carbon emissions is on track to trigger irreversible effects in climate change in just 30 years.

Source: Global Carbon Project

Because lignite is plentiful in China and other countries, the Kemper plant could provide a model for international initiatives. “Due to growing demand and high natural gas prices, China, India and other parts of Asia are expected to add more than 400,000 megawatts of new coal-based generation by 2035,” says Southern Company’s Jeannice Hall, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. “Energy companies in those regions can benefit from the use of low-rank coal [coal with low carbon content], which constitutes half of the world’s existing coal reserves.”

A CCS facility near Houston, Texas, USA has already garnered international support. The US$1 billion Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project, which involves retrofitting an existing coal plant, is a joint venture between U.S.-based NRG Energy and Japan’s JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration.

Under Pressure

Coal-fired power plants that capture their own carbon face the pressures of mammoth costs and, according to scientists, a ticking clock. The rate of the world’s carbon emissions is on track to trigger irreversible effects in climate change in just 30 years, according to a 2014 study by the Global Carbon Project.

“By far the biggest risk is that the necessary number of first-of-a-kind and then second-of-a-kind projects and the associated research and development to support learning by doing are not undertaken fast enough to support the global politics of tackling climate change,” Dr. Gibbins says.

Momentum toward CCS projects may be slowed by their huge and unpredictable price tags. Coal-powered plant CCS projects have failed due to soaring budgets. In 2011, the American Electric Power Company aborted plans to adopt the expensive technology in a power plant in the U.S. state of West Virginia. CCS hasn’t yet become widespread around the world partly because of inadequate government funding.

“To date, very few countries have had adequate means in place to compensate CCS early movers for the innovation they are making on behalf of society,” Dr. Gibbins says.

Even government backing doesn’t guarantee trouble-free execution, however. While the U.S. Department of Energy has contributed US$270 million to the Kemper plant, the project’s budget has more than doubled from an initial estimated cost of less than US$2.5 billion to $6.1 billion—making it one of the costliest power plants ever made.

Project leaders will need to leverage lessons learned from initiatives like Kemper, whose initial estimate didn’t fully take into account all of the necessary requirements. “We were right on the mark with cost estimates with respect to the design around the major components of the facility: the gasifier, steam generator and combustion turbine,” Ms. Hall says. “Where we missed it—and where many first-of-a-kind facilities like the Kemper facility miss the mark on estimating—is in the quantities of piping and wiring and the labor associated with these materials.”

The process is so costly that it can cut significantly into revenue from electricity sales. To help make up the difference, some of these projects are establishing new revenue streams that take advantage of the captured carbon dioxide, such as selling it to nearby oil companies, which pump the compound underground to help dislodge and harvest hard-to-reach oil. Petra Nova will send its captured carbon through an 82-mile (132-kilometer) pipeline to the West Ranch Oil Field. Kemper’s carbon will be sold to two oil companies in Mississippi. —Emma Haak


“To date, very few countries have had adequate means in place to compensate CCS early movers for the innovation they are making on behalf of society.”

—Jon Gibbins, PhD, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland

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