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Coal industry on hunt for funding to capture carbon

BISMARCK--Industry and lawmakers are pushing for funding to help commercialize carbon capture projects for new and old power plants. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said there should be a focus on moving technology beyond lab research to field test com...

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BISMARCK-Industry and lawmakers are pushing for funding to help commercialize carbon capture projects for new and old power plants.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said there should be a focus on moving technology beyond lab research to field test commercially viable projects.

He and industry leaders met with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz earlier this month. The senator said he thinks Moniz is supportive of more carbon capture investment.

"Every time I talk to him he says, 'Bring me a project,' so that's what we're doing," Hoeven said.

The group pitched Project Tundra - a partner project between Allete Clean Energy, Minnkota Power and BNI Coal to retrofit existing plants to capture carbon dioxide for use in enhanced oil recovery. They also talked about the zero-emissions Allam Cycle pilot project for new power plants, which uses compressed carbon dioxide to drive turbines.

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In a 2015 report, the National Coal Council called for more federal investment in the development of carbon capture and sequestration technology at a level to match investment in renewable energy.

"We (the industry) can't do it by ourselves," said Mike Jones, vice president of research and development for the Lignite Energy Council, of carbon research investment. "The dollars we're talking about are big."

"No one takes all the risk on a $1 billion plant," Jones said, unless there's an incentive to take that risk.

Since then, in North Dakota, the U.S. Department of Energy added $9.5 million to a joint cooperative agreement with the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota to conduct research and develop technologies to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels, bringing total funding of the project to $12 million. This comes in addition to grant funding for other projects from the federal agency.

In Fiscal Year 2015, EERC's total grant awards were $28.5 million - 56 percent of those awards were, at least in part, focused on carbon capture, utilization and storage. In Fiscal Year 2016, total awards were $36.5 million, with 68 percent for carbon capture.

"The last few years and what is proposed this year are roughly about equal," said EERC Director Tom Erickson of carbon capture spending, but federal focus on how to advance the technology is there.

He said people are thinking more about getting deeper into the details of making the technology viable, including pilot projects.

Hoeven introduced legislation adding $30 million to the Senate-passed Fiscal Year 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill to fund, through a competitive-bid process, commercially viable carbon capture and sequestration projects, several of which could come from North Dakota operators.

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"I think that would be incredible," Erickson said of the funding, which could possibly advance a demo of Project Tundra in North Dakota.

Hoeven said the funding won't likely be completed until year end but he is confident he will be able to get support for the measure in the House.

"I think there's a lot of interest in what we're trying to move with," Jones said.

When it comes to the Allam Cycle, developed by NET Power, a natural gas-burning demonstration plant in Texas is on track to be operational at the end of the year. Jones said the plant and its equipment are the first of its kind and test results from operations will tell its developers whether it will be commercially viable.

"You've got to run it," Jones said of the plant. "If we're right, it is a game-changer."

After the process is proven with natural gas, the coal industry will continue to work with the technology's developers, 8 Rivers Capital, to use the technology with gasified coal.

EERC is lab testing a variety of gasification processes and possible power plant materials that would work with gasified coal's differing chemical makeup.

Jones said coal's prevalence is what makes him confident coal industry investors will be willing to take the Allam Cycle a step further to use gasified coal. He said half of the world's lignite supply is in places with developing economies.

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The process could be adapted for nuclear power, too, Jones said and the U.S. has the business opportunity to be the technology's development leader.

"There's no losers in this as I see it," Jones said. "Every time we have success, the risk drops .... The potential payoff is so high that it has to happen."

Jones said, with carbon capture and use in enhanced oil recovery, carbon dioxide will no longer be considered a negative. The oil industry could use between 3 billion and 5 billion tons of the gas, making it a profitable product rather than waste.

"And we know more in our region about (carbon dioxide and enhanced oil recovery) than in any other part of the country," he said.

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