LANSING — More than 3,000 feet below ground in Gaylord, scientists hope to find solutions to America’s energy dilemma.
Last year they injected 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into an underground geological feature called a saline formation to see if it will stay there forever, out of the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.
It’s the largest CO2 injection by that method in the Midwest and will serve as a basis for similar projects, said Lynn Brickett, project manager for the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a branch of the Department of Energy in Pittsburgh.
The method has implications for other Michigan projects, including a planned coal plant in Holland (see related story, page 1). Initial results are promising, Brickett said, and the DOE wants to inject another 50,000 tons.
“So far, there is no CO2 at the surface. It’s moving throughout the reservoir consistent with what our models predicted,” she said.
The biggest concern with capturing CO2 is that it might escape underground and reach the surface, where in large quantities it could pose a health risk, Brickett said.
But in Michigan, stationary sources like coal-fired power plants emit about 100 million tons annually. With eight such plants in the application process, the state stands to benefit significantly from leading in carbon capture technology, she said.
“Cautiously, we’re looking at about 40 billion tons worth of capacity. If we can get 100 million tons per year underground, that’s 400 years’ worth of storage,” said David Barnes, a geologist at Western Michigan University and contributor to the DOE’s studies in Gaylord.
“That’s a lot. Certainly, Michigan is unique for the Midwest region.”
Michigan is part of the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, a consortium of businesses, public agencies and universities that tests carbon capture in the region.
Federal funding for the Midwest has topped $100 million in the past five years, and last November the consortium received a $61 million grant for further carbon capture exploration. West Michigan in particular has geological formations crucial for capturing carbon, according to Barnes.
Carbon capture and storage takes advantage of underground depositories like oil and gas reservoirs, coal seams and empty saline reservoirs that once stored crude oil, natural gas, brine and CO2 over millions of years.
Beyond slowing climate change, pumping CO2 underground can have other fringe benefits, experts say. For example, the enhanced oil recovery method injects CO2 into the ground to force out natural gas and oil that might otherwise be too costly to reach. The recovered gas and oil can be used or sold, while the CO2 stays underground.
Traverse City-based Core Energy is the only company east of the Mississippi River using the method, said Robert Mannes, its president.
Despite its potential benefits, carbon capture isn’t used on a commercial and national scale, due in part to safety, scale and cost concerns.
And if it’s a part of America’s future, then so is coal. Most environmentalists call coal an outdated energy source.
“Unless we change direction now and end the coal rush, Michigan will stand alone while the rest of the nation moves away from coal, creates renewable energy jobs and joins the fight against global warming,” said Cyndi Roper, executive director of the state chapter of Clean Water Action.
Other environmentalists worry that if large amounts of CO2 were to spread through groundwater or reach the surface, the businesses responsible wouldn’t be liable under current regulations.
“Companies who would like to employ this technology would not take on this liability,” said Tremaine Phillips, energy program associate for the Michigan Environmental Council. “We’re opposed to that. Someone has to keep an eye on the sites.”
But whatever the risks of storing carbon underground, all options must stay on the table in deciding the state’s energy future, according to Phillips.
“We’d like to say, ‘Let’s move policies away from coal all together,’ but we also know carbon capture has to be a part of the solution if it works,” he said.
Barnes, of Western Michigan University, agreed that while alternative energy is important for America’s future, coal-powered energy can’t simply be abandoned.
“Carbon capture gives us some confidence in a smooth transition into alternative fuels,” he said, calling it unfeasible to get rid of coal all at once.
Constructing coal plants or retrofitting old ones so they can capture carbon dioxide will prove expensive, a price that may be passed on to consumers.
But that might be a cold, hard truth of the future, across all types of energy, said Jeff Holyfield, director of news and information for Consumers Energy in Jackson.
“The simple fact is, whatever system is derived or policy is put in place to deal with CO2, customers will bear the cost in the end,” he said.
President Barack Obama has shown support for carbon capture and keeping coal in America’s energy future.
In Lansing last August, he said, “We’ll invest in technology that will allow us to use more coal, America’s most abundant energy source, with the goal of creating five first-of-a-kind coal-fired demonstration plants with carbon capture and sequestration.”
Experts say it could be 20 years before widespread carbon capture is in place and its goal of mitigating climate change is in reach. But if carbon capture has a future in America, they add, it must happen now.