Kentucky Brings Coal Into the Green Age

Murray, KY – U-S states and the federal government are pumping money into researching and implementing "green technology," a term that includes everything from finding alternative energy sources to making old energy sources more environmental. For Kentucky, the nation's third largest coal-producer, a major part of green technology means finding cleaner ways to use coal. Angela Hatton explores what the most popular form of "clean coal," Carbon Capture and Storage, means for the Commonwealth.

Flashback to July 2008. Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear is announcing the administration's goal to develop a comprehensive independent energy plan.

"We must and will make coal cleaner and greener."

The 25 by 25 Plan, unveiled last November called on the Commonwealth to get twenty-five percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025. One of the initiatives is an increase in efforts to implement carbon-capture and storage (CCS), also known as carbon sequestration, to reduce the negative effects caused by coal-fired power plants.

"Basically it's the other end of the cycle."

Kentucky Geological Survey geologist Brandon Nuttall says typically we extract fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal from the ground and burn them for energy, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"Carbon sequestration just takes that emitted CO2 and returns it underground for long-term storage."

In addition to keeping the CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere, scientists are developing ways to use captured carbon to enhance production of other fossil fuels. One of Nuttall's projects involves looking at the effects of CO2 on shale reservoirs rich in natural gas. Typically, some of the gas in these areas isn't accessible because the chemicals have bonded to the solid walls. Under CCS, companies pump the captured CO2 into the shale reservoirs to loosen the gas.

"In a way it's kind of like bowling. The stuck gas in the reservoir is like the pins. And you send the CO2 bowling ball down the alley and it smacks the pins and liberates them, so that they can then flow and be produced."

Other methods of carbon sequestration include pumping the CO2 into saline aquifers miles underground. CCS coal-plants are already being used on a limited basis in some parts of the western United States. In Kentucky, where the geological formations are different from those out west, scientists are studying how the carbon reacts underground.

"One of the main reasons we have to do this research is we have assure the public of the safety of this technique and that it will work."

And some environmental groups aren't sure it will. Mike Gowen is an executive committee member of the Great Rivers chapter of the Sierra Club. Gowen has reviewed the governor's energy plan and likes the idea behind it, but he doesn't think pouring more money into CCS is the solution.

"It's a little bit of a risk for a state like Kentucky in the longitudinal future because eventually our coal's going to run out. It may help us in the next fifty years, but what about the next hundred, two hundred?"

Environmentalists also worry that in the next decades carbon could seep out of reservoirs into the atmosphere or into river beds, disrupting the water's Ph-balance. And environmental groups aren't the only ones with concerns. Utility companies, too, see a negative side. As Brandon Nuttall explains, current CCS technology is expensive to operate.

"Probably it has about a thirty-percent energy penalty. Nearly one-third of the energy that conventional power plant would generate would have to go toward running the carbon capture plant."

In a state that receives 92-percent of its electricity from coal, it's the consumers who are going to take the hit. State Energy Secretary Len Peters says Kentuckians enjoy some of the lowest electricity rates in the country, but that will change as we implement a more sustainable energy plan.

"Because of our high reliance on coal here in the state, it will have a greater impact on our electricity rates than some other states. Estimates of those increases go anywhere from 20 - 60 percent and we have to plan for them."

That's a huge percentage, but don't sound the alarm yet. Peters says officials are also working on developing energy efficiency and conservation. Brandon Nuttall sees CCS as the incentive Kentuckians need to change their electricity usage habits.

"If you have invested in energy efficiency, your electric bill may stay the same or not go up very much simply because you're using your energy much more wisely."

Carbon sequestration won't happen in the Commonwealth overnight. Large scale usage is still ten to fifteen years away, depending on who's estimating. Scientists continue to refine forms of CCS which are more efficient and cheaper to operate. One thing is clear though, Kentucky coal will be a part of the plan for years to come.