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GLRPPR Sector Resource: Sustainability Assessment of Coal-Fired Power Plants with Carbon Capture and Storage

Sustainability Assessment of Coal-Fired Power Plants with Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has the ability to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power production. Most studies find the potential for 70 to 80 percent reductions in CO2 emissions on a life-cycle basis, depending on the technology. Because of this potential, utilities and policymakers are considering the wide-spread implementation of CCS technology on new and existing coal plants to dramatically curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the power generation sector. However, the implementation of CCS systems will have many other social, economic, and environmental impacts beyond curbing GHG emissions that must be considered to achieve sustainable energy generation. For example, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), and particulate matter (PM) are also important environmental concerns for coal-fired power plants. For example, several studies have shown that eutrophication is expected to double and acidification would increase due to increases in NOx emissions for a coal plant with CCS provided by monoethanolamine (MEA) scrubbing. Potential for human health risks is also expected to increase due to increased heavy metals in water from increased coal mining and MEA hazardous waste, although there is currently not enough information to relate this potential to actual realized health impacts. In addition to environmental and human health impacts, supply chain impacts and other social, economic, or strategic impacts will be important to consider. A thorough review of the literature for life-cycle analyses of power generation processes using CCS technology via the MEA absorption process, and other energy generation technologies as applicable, yielded large variability in methods and core metrics. Nonetheless, a few key areas of impact for CCS were developed from the studies that we reviewed. These are: the impact of MEA generation on increased eutrophication and acidification from ammonia emissions and increased toxicity from MEA production and the impact of increased coal use including the increased generation of NOx from combustion and transportation, impacts of increased mining of coal and limestone, and the disposal of toxic fly ash and boiler ash waste streams. Overall, the implementing CCS technology could contribute to a dramatic decrease in global GHG emissions, while most other environmental and human health impact categories increase only slightly on a global scale. However, the impacts on human toxicity and ecotoxicity have not been studied as extensively and could have more severe impacts on a regional or local scale. More research is needed to draw strong conclusions with respect to the specific relative impact of different CCS technologies. Specifically, a more robust data set that disaggregates data in terms of component processes and treats a more comprehensive set of environmental impacts categories from a life-cycle perspective is needed. In addition, the current LCA framework lacks the required temporal and spatial scales to determine the risk of environmental impact from carbon sequestration. Appropriate factors to use when assessing the risk of water acidification (groundwater/oceans/aquifers depending on sequestration site), risk of increased human toxicity impact from large accidental releases from pipeline or wells, and the legal and public policy risk associated with licensing CO2 sequestration sites are also not currently addressed. In addition to identifying potential environmental, social, or risk-related issues that could impede the large-scale deployment of CCS, performing LCA-based studies on energy generation technologies can suggest places to focus our efforts to achieve technically feasible, economically viable, and environmentally conscious energy generation technologies for maximum impact.


Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)

Resource Type:

Date of Publication:
November 2011

Associated Sectors:


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