WisBusiness: PSC commissioner predicts carbon restrictions will soon be the norm

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – There has been a “paradigm shift” in thinking among industry, regulators and society at large about the need to limit carbon emissions to control global warming, state Public Service Commission member Mark Meyer said Tuesday.

Speaking as part of a panel at a Geological Carbon Sequestration conference UW-Madison Engineering School, Meyer said it is now almost conventional wisdom that “we will live in a carbon-constricted world.”

Meyer attributed the change in sentiment in part to Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” as well as acceptance by utility CEOs that carbon emissions will be limited.

He said the change in Congress during the last election to a Democratic-controlled House and Senate will propel research to sequester carbon in underground geologic formations and find cleaner ways of producing energy from coal.

But Meyer said he has no idea what controlling carbon emissions will ultimately cost consumers here in Wisconsin, where several large coal-fired power plants are now being built.

“It’s far too early to tell what the carbon constrained world look like,” he said. “But any time you add to the (energy production) system, it’s probably a given that it will add costs.”

The conference, which was sponsored by the PSC and the UW Energy Institute, focused on how to store carbon emissions in geological formations in the region. Two Wisconsin experts said Wisconsin probably holds few options for storing – or sequestering – the pollutant in saline aquifers deep beneath the Badger State surface.

Illinois, however, apparently has great potential, said Robert Finley of the Illinois State Geological Survey and one of the globe’s experts in carbon sequestration.

He said his state has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in research into CO2 storage. It has done so, in part, because Illinois mines tons of coal and understands that if that industry is to continue to grow and power electricity plants, ways to prevent carbon’s escaping into the atmosphere must be developed.

He said his state is moving toward testing ways to store carbon in saline reservoirs 6,000 to 7,000 feet beneath southern Illinois. He said there are “tens of thousands” of square miles of sandstone capped by shale that could be ideal storage areas for CO2.

Nino Amato, a former utility company executive who attended the meeting representing the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said he believes Illinois is “light years” ahead of other states in terms of carbon storage and coal gasification – which has the potential to significantly cut emissions.

Peter Taglia, staff scientist with Clean Wisconsin, said he hopes utilities will go beyond coal gasification and adopt a technology that would turn coal into synthetic natural gas and then shipped in existing natural gas pipelines.

He said his vision of the energy future for Wisconsin would have coal being mined in Illinois, burned and turned into natural gas there and then stored in that state’s geologic formations.

“Illinois coal resources hold more BTUs than Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s oil reserves combined,” he said. “Coal to synthetic gas facilities are under development there using technology already in use in North Dakota.”

Tina Ball, an environmental official with Excel Energy, said her company is building a 350 megawatt coal gasification plant in Colorado and also plans to do carbon capture and storage in depleted oil fields or saline aquifers beneath that state.

She said her company decided to enter into the joint project because the Rocky Mountain state offered Excel incentives to encourage its participation.