Catch me if you can

Carbon trapping experiment set for Springfield

The state and federal governments have granted $67 million for a project at City Water, Light and Power aimed at capturing carbon dioxide from coal before emissions reach the air.

Construction is expected to begin next year, with operations commencing in 2023. "We're committed to run this, roughly, through 2024," said Kevin O'Brien, director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana, which is overseeing the project. "We'll know pretty well early on how well this is working. Fingers crossed, it will work very, very well."

O'Brien's team did a smaller carbon-capture experiment at a University of Illinois power plant in Urbana in 2016. The technology used in that project was different than the one planned for CWLP, where a solvent made by BASF, a German company, will treat five percent of flue gas from Dallman 4, the utility's largest power generator, O'Brien said. How long the solvent will work is key: If the solvent loses effectiveness too soon, disposal costs and the cost of new solvent could undercut the project's economics, he said. The solvent is considered hazardous waste, O'Brien said, and BASF will take control of used solvent and take it out of Illinois.

Technology already exists that allows carbon to be stripped from emissions. "The question is, can you do it economically?" O'Brien said.

What will be done with captured carbon hasn't been decided. One possibility is using it to grow algae that could be used as animal feed or a biofuel, O'Brien said. "There's a lot of ways to go here," he said. "If this works, people will be coming from throughout the globe. It would put the state of Illinois and the city of Springfield into a global perspective."

Capturing earth-warming carbon from coal-fired power plants long has been a goal of fossil-fuel fans, but it's been an expensive endeavor. Under President George W. Bush, the federal government in 2008 withdrew funding for a proposed carbon-capture project in Mattoon designed to inject trapped carbon deep within the earth. The government pulled the plug after costs swelled past $1 billion. A scaled-down version of the project dubbed FutureGen subsequently was planned for a shuttered coal-fired plant in Meredosia, but it was canceled in 2015 after private financing didn't come through and a deadline approached to spend federal money set aside for the project.

The federal government has allocated $47 million for the CWLP project while the state has agreed to pay $20 million. President Joe Biden has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by more than half in nine years; Gov. JB Pritzker says that Illinois power plants should stop burning coal by 2030.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has called for increased efforts to capture carbon and store it underground. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proposed spending nearly $320 million over seven years to research the viability of carbon-capture technologies.

Some environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, are opposed. Elizabeth Scrafford, organizing manager of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, which is pushing for renewable energy, said that the best way to keep carbon from power plants out of the atmosphere is to stop burning coal.

"This idea moves us in the wrong direction and only keeps us burning dirty energy for longer," Scrafford wrote in an email. "That is not the bright future the children of Springfield are counting on."

O'Brien said the technology also could work on gas-fired power plants as well as manufacturing processes for cement and steel that generate carbon. "Renewables are good, we need to continue to do them. The reality is, we also have to manage the fossil fuel side. If you really, seriously want to reduce carbon dioxide, you're going to have to do this."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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