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Enchant Energy wants to install carbon capture on San Juan Generating Station. Here's how the technology works. Farmington Daily Times

Democratic presidential candidates have opposing opinions about carbon capture

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FARMINGTON — As plans to retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture technology move forward, the Petra Nova Project at the W.A. Parish Generating Station in Texas is held up as an example of a successful retrofit.

Enchant Energy Chief Operating Officer Peter Mandelstam said he describes his company’s retrofit of the San Juan Generating Station as Petra Nova 2.0.

“It’s an evolution, but it’s not a revolution,” he said.

Enchant Energy has assembled much of the same team that made Petra Nova the second successful carbon capture retrofit of a coal-fired power plant. 

More: Learning from the past: Enchant Energy partners with Petra Nova's technology provider

This team includes the engineering firm Sargent & Lundy, which has more than a century of experience in the electric utility world.

Sargent & Lundy official says Petra Nova proved the technology

Sean McHone, a senior vice president and project director with Sargent & Lundy's fossil power group, has more than 10 years of experience working with the Parish Plant in Texas to retrofit one of its units with carbon capture technology. He was also involved in a study about 10 years ago looking at retrofitting the San Juan Generating Station.

“We always thought that San Juan made a lot of sense,” McHone said.

He highlighted its proximity to the Cortez pipeline for transporting carbon dioxide for use in enhanced-oil recovery, as well as the pollution controls that reduce the amount of sulfur.

McHone said Petra Nova’s construction proved that the technology can work at a utility scale and the lessons learned will help reduce the costs of future retrofits. And the San Juan Generating Station is not the only carbon capture project Sargent & Lundy is currently working on. McHone said the firm is currently supporting approximately 10 different front-end engineering and design studies for carbon capture projects around the country.

“The interest in carbon capture continues to grow right now,” he said.

But not everyone believes Petra Nova was a success story. Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis released a report in February critical of Enchant Energy’s proposal for the San Juan Generating Station. In the report, IEEFA stated there is no supporting evidence that Petra Nova captures 90% of the carbon.

More: Commentary: Retrofitting San Juan Generation Station for carbon capture is an uneconomic pipe dream

McHone said it was premature for IEEFA to draw those conclusions because of the lack of publicly-available data. He said the U.S. Department of Energy is reviewing a drafted operations report for Petra Nova that will provide more details about what percentage of the carbon emissions are captured. He said he expects the Department of Energy to publish that report.

Tax credits central to project's success

Much of the project’s success depends on the 45Q tax credits. McHone described these tax credits as the government saying it wants to develop the technology. He said similar tax credits helped develop the wind and solar industries.

“We expect that this will do the exact same thing for carbon capture,” he said.

More: Mine workers ask PRC to support carbon capture plan, PNM's San Juan Generating Station abandonment

At the same time, Democratic presidential candidates have differing opinions about whether carbon capture should play a role in addressing climate change. Joe Biden has voiced support for the technology while Bernie Sanders opposes it.

On Sanders’ website, he describes carbon capture as a false solution and states he would phase out non-sustainable sources of electricity. Meanwhile, Biden’s campaign website states that he would enhance tax incentives for carbon capture and double down on federal investments into the technology.

President Donald Trump, as well as his two predecessors, has supported the 45Q tax credits.

Despite the uncertainty about who will be the next president, neither McHone nor Mandelstam believe the election could result in the elimination of the 45Q tax credits. They both highlight bipartisan support for the tax credits.

The biggest hurdle for the project may be the opposition

McHone said the biggest hurdle the San Juan Generating Station project must overcome is the opposition.

“I don’t know if they could stop the project, but they could certainly make it more difficult,” he said.

More: Sen. Muñoz highlights opposition to coal while asking about SJGS carbon capture proposal

In addition to concerns about the price of the project and the viability of the technology, opponents say carbon capture continues the reliance on fossil fuel energy. That means continued extraction of coal, which leads to its own environmental concerns.

One of the sources of methane identified by a team of researchers in 2016 was a venting shaft at the San Juan Mine. And continued operation of the power plant means continued production of coal ash. The advocacy group New Energy Economy has argued that placing the coal ash in the mine prior to remediation could put downstream communities at risk.

More: 'Future residents will likely be unaware:' Hydrogeologist warns mine could pollute water

Many environmental advocacy groups also oppose the use of captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery because the oil will then be burned and produce its own emissions.

But proponents say carbon capture is needed while transitioning to a renewable energy grid because it provides dispatchable power with lower emissions.

More: New Mexico Tech seeks funding to study carbon storage near San Juan Generating Station

McHone said the San Juan Generating Station, after it is retrofitted with carbon capture technology, will have lower emissions than any natural gas plant. He said the battery storage technology has not yet reached the level needed for wide-spread use in the utility sector.

McHone said the biggest piece of misinformation he has seen about the carbon capture retrofit at the San Juan Generating Station is that the amine-based, post-combustion capture method proposed is not a mature technology. He said it has been in use for more than half a century.

What is new is that it will be used on a coal-fired generating station.

“It’s not a new technology,” he said. “The application is new.”

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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