Biden counting on two little-used technologies to fight climate change

The Biden administration this week proposed a new rule that could go a long way toward meeting the president’s ambitious climate goals. But it relies on two little-used technologies, which could make its targets challenging to reach.

The new proposal lays out strict limits for planet-warming emissions from coal plants and some gas plants that would significantly cut down their contributions to climate change.

It says coal plants that intend to remain in operation beyond 2039 need to install technology that cuts their carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2030. The largest existing natural gas plants and any new ones that open also would be required to use technology to slash their emissions 90 percent by 2035 or run primarily on low-carbon hydrogen energy by 2038. Plants that choose the hydrogen pathway would have to get 30 percent of their energy from hydrogen by 2032 and 96 percent from hydrogen by 2038.

But neither hydrogen nor the other technology, known as carbon capture, is widely employed by the power sector — leading some experts to question whether their use can be scaled up in time to meet the rule’s requirements

The only American plant that was using carbon capture shut down in 2020. The plant, known as Petra Nova, shuttered amid falling oil prices, and it sold the carbon it captured for use in oil recovery. Plans to restart it were recently announced, however.

Canada also has a plant using the technology, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule points to some additional examples of where it has been in use.

But carbon capture has a way to go before it becomes mainstream.

“In the power generation industry, bringing new technologies to that scale, we typically want to see a number of full-scale demonstrations prior to calling it commercial-ready,” said Brandon Delis, director of research and development for generation sector environmental research at EPRI, a nonprofit research organization.

“I think there’s still more to learn, there’s still more work to do, and we need to learn about things like operational challenges, maintenance challenges, how to optimize the system … before you’re deploying this technology universally across the fleet,” Delis added.

Julia Attwood, head of sustainable materials at research provider BloombergNEF, also brought up a logistical challenge — getting carbon capture approved.

She called widespread adoption of carbon capture “technically feasible” but described a “backlog” for getting government approval, saying it can take about six years to obtain a permit currently.

She also said transporting and storing the carbon that is captured creates a challenge.

“It’s very difficult to find enough people who have the expertise to examine these proposals and judge them. Most of the people who understand underground geology like that work for oil companies,” she said.

“The existing transport and storage sites are mostly clustered around petrochemical and oil production because those are the industries that have been using it so far,” she said. “So if you have a far-flung power plant that would have to build an enormous pipeline in order to get to a shared storage site, that’s obviously going to add quite a bit to your cost.”

As for hydrogen, Frank Wolak, president and CEO of the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, said in some pilot programs, power plants use hydrogen as fuel, but no major plants are using it.

He said the rule’s 2032 goal was feasible, but he wasn’t sure about the 2038 goal.

“The 30 percent by 2032 is achievable. I think it’s a question of taking existing plants and seeing how much hydrogen can be introduced with minor modifications. Some plants may require swapping out or overhauling turbines if they’re gas turbines,” Wolak said

Attwood said the challenge with hydrogen is its cost.

“You have a cheaper solution with some infrastructure difficulties in [carbon capture], and you have an easier infrastructure problem but a much higher cost in the hydrogen option, so I guess the operators will have to choose which risk they’d like to take,” she said.

Scott Sklar, director of George Washington University’s Environment & Energy Management Institute, said he was “bullish” on hydrogen.

“The administration is pumping a lot of money — both research and development as well as tax incentives — through the Inflation Reduction Act towards hydrogen,” he said.

Utilities have another road they could take: shuttering some of their plants and possibly opting for power sources like renewables or nuclear.

The EPA did not make this option an explicit part of the plan. A recent Supreme Court ruling barred the agency from considering a mandate for so-called “generation shifting,” saying it had to put forward regulations that an individual plant could comply with rather than mandating the system as a whole shift to different energy sources.

But power plant operators could determine the new rules limit the viability for fossil fuels and decide to make the switch on their own.

“The competitiveness of renewables is putting a lot of strain on fossil generation as it is, and so this may just accelerate the inevitable,” Attwood said.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.