Failure of Kemper County “clean coal” plant casts more doubts on BECCS

Kemper County plant under construction. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

After years of embarrassing delays and $5.3 billion in cost overruns, Southern Company has finally pulled the plug on its pioneering “clean coal” plant in Kemper County, Mississippi.

The $7.5 billion Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Instead, it will now run on natural gas, without carbon capture – an ironic end, given that Southern Co. could likely have built such a power plant from the outset for under $500 million.

The project’s failure should cast serious doubts on the prospects of both “clean coal” as well as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – the current star child of techno-fix solutions to climate change.

BECCS would involve capturing CO2 from biofuel refineries or biomass-burning power stations and pumping it into geological formations, or – more likely due to economics – pumping it into oil wells in order to extract more oil. Despite lack of evidence as to the technological and economic viability of BECCS, the models underpinning the Paris Agreement’s 2°C target overwhelmingly rely upon BECCS as a “negative emissions technology” capable of being deployed at a scale large enough to balance out emissions by mid-century.

In theory, an IGCC power station like Kemper County should be the cleanest and most efficient way of generating electricity from burning coal or biomass. Furthermore, an IGCC plant with CCS should be less energy-intensive than a conventional power plant with CCS, because the CO2 is removed from the syngas pre-combustion – when the CO2 concentration is higher – instead of stripping it from the flue gas post-combustion when CO2 is diluted, as it is at facilities like the retrofitted Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, which was officially opened earlier this year.  

The failure of the Kemper County project, which featured the cleanest and most efficient CCS power plant technology, should therefore be seen as a warning for policy-makers expecting CCS – including BECCS – technologies to magically close the emissions gap by mid-century.

It’s important to note that exchanging biomass for coal would add even more challenges to an IGCC with CCS plant. Biomass gasification results in a syngas which is chemically quite different from that generated through coal gasification, and therefore requires different treatment in order to produce a gas clean enough for burning to power a gas turbine.

While CCS advocates will undoubtedly seek to frame it as a marginal example, the reality is that the Kemper County project is a prime example of what CCS stands for – an enormous waste of public attention and resources, at a time when society should be focused on transforming our energy systems to address the root causes of climate change.

Pioneering coal plant with CCS isn’t viable, admits CEO

The Kemper County project. Credit: Wikipedia

A new report by Greenpeace Energy Desk reveals that one of the US’s premier coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration plants, the Kemper County Energy Facility, is not economically viable.

The project, located in Kemper County, Mississippi, received hundreds of millions in public subsidies, promising to produce syngas through a new gasification technique in addition to utilizing waste CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in nearby oil fields.

However, after spending $7.1 billion on the project, Kemper’s parent company is throwing in the towel on generating electricity from coal, switching instead to cheap natural gas without any carbon capture.

The Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with CCS, and was touted by industry as a pioneer for burning coal or biomass with carbon capture.

Instead, it’s become a massive, expensive failure, and an emblem of injustice – with Mississippi ratepayers potentially on the hook for up to $7 billion in cost overruns from the project.

This is big news, given that IGCC with CCS has long been promoted as the state of the art concept for CCS, including BECCS. It would have a much better energy balance than post-combustion CCS, and be the cleanest form of coal or biomass combustion possible, if it worked.

Which, of course, it doesn’t. Our takeaway is that for anyone interested in the future of CCS, the failure of Kemper County should be much bigger news than whatever may or may not happen with the Texas-based Petra Nova coal CCS plant in the future.


How a US energy company tried to sell its failing ‘clean coal’ project to the world

The Kemper Project under construction. XTUV0010, CC BY-SA 3.0Below is an article published by Greenpeace’s Energy Desk about the latest scandal involving the Kemper County CCS project.  This is extremely relevant to the bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) debate: Kemper County was one of two flagship CCS projects supported by the Obama government.  The other, FutureGen2, was previously canceled after huge losses, cost overruns and delays and the total refusal by companies or banks to invest in it. On paper, Kemper County’s technology is state of the art, superior to other CCS technologies: It is an Integrated Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine (ICCG) power station with CCS, which, if it worked reliably and affordably, would be cleaner and more efficient than other technologies.  But reality is clearly very different from the theory, as this case illustrates.
It also illustrates the dangers of ‘learning by doing’ strategies about such complex and expensive technologies (leaving aside the impacts of coal mining and of biomass sourcing): Even a few unsuccessful projects like this swallow huge sums of money and, as the Kemper County case study shows, it’s often the poorest communities who’re paying the price of such failures.

The company behind America’s flagship ‘clean coal’ project tried to push the technology on countries around the world, even after they discovered its profound problems, Energydesk can reveal.

Last month a New York Times investigation chronicled the spiralling costs, missed deadlines, technical issues and administrative chaos at Southern Company’s coal gasification facility in Mississippi.

The Kemper project, as it is called, is currently more than $4 billion over budget and more than two years late, with Southern now promising it will begin delivering ‘clean coal’ power no later than September 30th.

Engineers who have worked on Kemper expect the project’s Kemper’s start-date to be delayed yet again — until 2017.

Dodgy deal

A new look into Southern’s PR operations over the past few years suggests that selling the technology abroad was central to the project’s business model, and the company pursued that in spite of the mounting problems.

In December 2015 the company announced that it had signed a letter of intent with South Korean firm Alps Energy to “evaluate the deployment” of the Kemper technology at one of its power plants.

By this time, Southern was well aware of the crisis unfolding at the plant.

But the South Korea deal has been perhaps the most concrete success of the global ‘clean coal’ offensive, standing out among Southern’s attempts to hawk the technology in Poland, Norway, China, Romania, Serbia and Australia.


New York Times

Dirty secrets

To understand just how important the international sales element was to Southern, you need look no further than a 2008 memo from Mississippi’s then-Governor Haley Barbour in which he describes the project as a “key piece of America’s and the world’s energy future”.

Less than a year later the company touted a deal with China for its clean coal technology – a proprietary process called TRIG (transport integrated gasification) – even though Kemper hadn’t even broken ground.

Around this time Southern CEO Tom Fanning wrote to the Energy Secretary urging him to divert focus from the bigger FutureGen CCS project in Illinois (the government pulled the plug in 2015) because Kemper was “now ready for commercial deployment” — and that it was being discussed for licensing in China and Australia.

That didn’t end up happening.

Hidden crisis

By 2012, Southern’s subsidiary Mississippi Power had already concealed cost overruns of $366 million, and a year later admitted the project was $1 billion more expensive than anticipated.

In late 2013, an earnings call revealed massive losses and serious delays, with Fanning admitting that they “made a mistake on the engineering”.

The scandal had already cost the jobs of two of Mississippi Power’s top executives, including president Ed Day.

That, however, didn’t stop Southern and the US Department of Energy from taking Norway’s minister of petroleum and energy, along with seven other energy ministers, on a tour of the facility a month later.

Hey Poland

In 2014, months after a whistleblower told Southern officials – including Fanning – that the company had broken the law and misled investors over its false schedule and budget, a top executive flew to Poland for the Wroclaw Global Forum.

There, Karl Moor tried to sell the country on the Kemper technology, claiming the plant was already running and “utilising 65% of the CO2 and sending three and a half million tons of CO2 down a pipeline for enhanced oil recovery” — things that still haven’t actually happened.

“Our first response should be to get Poland the technology so that they can use their native lignite in a strategic way,” Moor said.

“For some reason the Department of Energy for the last 20 years has been helping us develop a technology aimed at Poland’s coal,” he added.

Six months later Fanning and the US Energy Secretary were doing the same thing in Turkey.

Consequences at home

As Southern eyes international deals, the deeply deprived Mississippi county of Kemper wrestles with the plant’s unfulfilled jobs and tax promises.

As Fanning spoke in Philadelphia at the end of July, reaffirming the project’s September 2016 start-date, Kemper residents were called to an emergency meeting on a proposed 41% tax hike to pay the county’s crumbling schools.

The region’s public services have been starved of revenue as long-time homeowners were forced to move in order to make room for the facility’s gigantic footprint.

DeKalb, the town nearest the plant, had to eliminate its police department due to a lack of money.

And, if Southern sells its clean coal technology abroad, the County does not stand to receive any of the proceeds — as per the government agreement.

We got in touch with Southern Company for comment and will update this piece if they get back to us

Miserable failure at Kemper “clean coal” plant indicates future failure of “clean bioenergy” climate solution

The Kemper Project under construction. XTUV0010, CC BY-SA 3.0Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) was granted a huge boost of support by the IPCC’s “mitigation” Working Group in their 5th Assessment Report. Since then growing attention has been given to this technofix as the main approach to removing CO2 from the overloaded atmosphere. This is in spite of the fact that there are currently no operating commercial-scale BECCS projects*, and there is ongoing serious debate over the climate and other impacts of all large scale bioenergy. There are also serious concerns about costs, feasibility and safety of underground storage.

Perhaps the best indication we have for the feasibility of large scale BECCS, which the IPCC is relying on to avoid catastrophic climate change, is the current generation of coal CCS projects. These have been under development for many years under the popular guise of “clean coal”.

On 5th July the New York Times provided a disturbing evaluation of the Kemper “clean coal” plant in Mississippi, USA, a hugely over-hyped and over-priced energy project that industry and policy-makers claim to be a solution to climate change, despite mountains of evidence that it is only making matters worse.

Kemper is one of several such projects. SaskPower’s Boundary Dam facility in Saskatchewan, Canada, is supposedly the first commercial-scale coal CCS plant in the world. It sends some CO2 to an oil field, which is then used to pump out otherwise inaccessible oil reserves, called “enhanced oil recovery”. They are actually paying fines to the oil company for failing to deliver the contracted amount of CO2. How this project is billed as a “solution” to climate change is baffling.

FutureGen in the USA is another project – an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal power station with CCS that collapsed after over $175 million had been spent. Then came FutureGen 2.0, a scheme to retrofit an old coal plant like the Boundary Dam with CCS, which suffered the same fate after over $200 million of public money had been spent.

Then there is the White Rose project in the UK. It would have been the first new coal plant to be built in the UK since the 70’s, coming right at the time when coal is supposedly being phased out. Developers went even further in their rhetoric, saying that this would be the first “negative emissions” plant in the world, since it would burn some biomass in the mix. The argument is that all bioenergy is “carbon neutral”, so capturing the CO2 would render it “carbon negative”. Yet the project was to source coal from mines in Colombia and Russia that have resulted in violent conflict with communities, and wood from the Southern US, where the world’s most biodiverse temperate wetland forests are being felled and turned into wood pellets. Coal mining and deforestation cannot be “solutions” to climate change. Thankfully the project collapsed, after millions had been spent on feasibility studies.

Billions in public funds are being spent on these horrendously misguided projects, money that could be allocated instead to genuine attempts to reduce emissions and restore ecosystems. These projects are giant infrastructure projects that are pitched as progressive and innovative solutions to climate crisis, but in reality are a part of the problem, and always result in more damage and emissions once you peel back the greenwash.

Applying CCS to coal plants is simply a desperate attempt to throw a lifeline to an industry that should have been ended years ago. But the impacts of coal mining, the fact that mining itself is inherently polluting and destructive, and invariably results in harm to the communities near to it or displaced for it, is never a consideration.

The Kemper “clean coal” plant must now take first prize as the biggest failure of these projects. Regardless of whether it is ever finished and operates satisfactorily, it has failed before ever being switched on. The New York Times’ detailed and shocking article lays bare the level of corporate wheeling and dealing at Kemper. The article is based of the account of a whistle-blower, who is a former employee at the plant. We really recommend that this article is read.

The massive failure of “clean coal” projects like Kemper and the others described above are a clear warning for the future of BECCS. BECCS is touted as a means of delivering negative emissions based on entirely faulty carbon accounting that assumes all bioenergy – even cutting down forests to burn in coal plants – is “carbon neutral”, and that capturing the carbon will miraculously result in the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. BECCS has long been discussed in climate geoengineering debates, where it is presented as one of the more “benign” or “soft” approaches to tweaking the climate (at least in comparison to spewing sulphate particles into the stratosphere, or dumping iron into the ocean).

Now climate scientists within the IPCC Working Group 3, largely dominated by economists rather than experts on energy technologies or ecology, have promoted the whole concept of BECCS as “essential” to stabilising our climate. Promoting technofixes that are currently non-existent, and for which we have very clear indications they can never work, is nothing short of grossly irresponsible.


* Except for one plant in Illinois, USA, that captures some CO2 from ethanol fermentation. This is being called BECCS and “negative emissions” by industry proponents. However, not even the plant’s operators claim that it achieves negative emissions, as the emissions associated with ethanol production outstrip what is being captured.

COP21’s climate technofix: spinning carbon into gold and the myth of ‘negative emissions’

Skyline in Decatur, Illinois, Photo:

by Rachel Smolker, The Ecologist

Paris has been awash with hype about ‘CO2 recycling’ and ‘carbon neutral’ or even ‘carbon negative’ technologies based on burning millions of trees, writes Rachel Smolker. But the alchemical notion that waste carbon can be spun into corporate gold is hitting serious reality checks. It’s time to ditch the fantasies and progress the real solutions: like caring for land, soils, forests and grasslands.

When the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) published their most recent fifth assessment report, something surprising and deeply disturbing was lurking in the small print in chapter three on ‘mitigation’.

The IPCC revealed that to achieve even a recognizably normal future climate the models they reviewed relied on not only drastically reducing emissions in the future, but also on widespread use of some advanced technology that can remove some of the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere.

In fact, most (101 of 116 models they reviewed to achieve 430-480 PPM stabilization) incorporated some sort of ‘negative emissions’ technological fix (Fuss et al., 2014).

The terminology of ‘negative emissions’ has now entered the jargon in climate negotiations currently underway in Paris. Yet such a technology is currently nonexistent. The only approach to sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere mentioned by the IPCC as “near term available” is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, commonly referred to as BECCS – Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

BECCS involves producing biomass in massive amounts and either refining it into liquid biofuels (ethanol etc.) or burning it for electricity and heat, while also capturing the resulting CO2 emissions and burying them underground.

IPCC acknowledges that there are risks and uncertainties associated with large scale BECCS. But, while IPCC has remained scientifically rigorous in their assessments of the state of our climate (chapter one of the report), when it comes to assessing ‘mitigation’ options (chapter three), scientific rigor appears to have fallen by the wayside in favor of economic wishful thinking.

The reality of BECCS

The fact is that no matter how costly or difficult it may be economically and no matter how difficult to make the models ‘work’ to lay out a path to climate stabilization, embracing fantasy technofixes is a losing strategy. We already know that for both technical and economic reasons, BECCS can never achieve ‘negative emissions’.

In fact, in a new report on BECCS, by Biofuelwatch refers to reliance on BECCS to clean up our climate mess as being roughly as dependable as counting on a visit from carbon sucking extraterrestrials from another planet.

There are currently only a handful of operating commercial BECCS facility in existence, based at ethanol refineries, the most notable being the Archer Daniels Midland project in Decatur Illinois. These capture CO2 from fermentation, which is cheaper and easier than capturing CO2 from other processes because fermentation results in a relatively pure CO2 stream.

The Decatur project is a proof of concept project for underground storage of CO2. However, its developers never claimed to provide ‘negative emissions’ nor even to be ‘carbon neutral’. A few others sell the captured fermentation CO2 for industrial applications including soft drinks and enhanced oil recovery (see below).

Meanwhile, burning wood for industrial and commercial scale electricity and heat is the bioenergy process that is scaling up most rapidly, with co-firing of wood pellets in coal power plants. Industry and governments continue to claim that burning wood for electricity is renewable and ‘carbon neutral’.

Hence they subsidize it alongside wind and solar, even though the CO2 emissions are generally much higher even than for coal per unit of energy generated. The notion that those emissions will be offset by regrowth of the trees and crops that are used has been refuted over and over again, yet still is not reflected in policies. Yet, if the process is not ‘carbon neutral’ in the first place, it can never be rendered ‘negative’ by carbon capture.

We also know full well by now that the demand for ‘biomass’ and the associated land, water, fertilizers use etc. would be hugely destructive on a variety of fronts beyond greenhouse gas emissions – affecting food production, water, human rights and biodiversity. This is clear already at the current scale of bioenergy production.

BECCS and ‘clean coal’

BECCS is the bioenergy twin of ‘clean coal’, the carbon capture (CCS) technology that has been touted for years by the coal industry. So how has that worked out?

Carbon capture from fossil fuel processes, as from bioenergy, is expensive and energy intensive. Most attempts – almost all involving coal and natural gas, have encountered a multitude of technical problems and massive cost overruns. They have failed to operate efficiently if at all.

FutureGen, a demonstration ‘clean coal’ plant, was intended to be a US showcase example of CCS technology. Somewhere around 200 million dollars of pubic funding were spent prior to cancellation in 2013. It was canceled in part because private investors wouldn’t chip in. They didn’t consider it viable, presumably because the technical and economic challenges were simply too great.

Another CCS ‘clean coal’ project is in progress in Kemper, Mississippi. The facility will use lignite coal strip mined from an adjacent area of around 48 square miles. Costs were initially estimated at $1.8 billion but have so far ballooned to an astounding $6.17 billion.

Even then, the facility is required only to ‘try’ to capture CO2. If they fail, they won’t be held responsible. If they succeed, they have contracted to sell the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. The project is nevertheless still presented as ‘good for the climate’.

Last year SaskPower’s billion dollar Boundary Dam project, capturing CO2 from a coal plant came online amid massive hype and proclamations of success. However, recent release of internal documents

“have not only shed light on the technical and financial problems with the plant but the political deception that has gone with it … A little over a year later, the hype about the purported environmental benefits and affordability of the Boundary Dam CCS plant have gone up in a puff of green smoke.”

CCS has been held up as the promise behind ‘clean coal’ for decades. Yet a few weeks ago, after 22 years of lobbying for so-called ‘clean coal’ and failing to produce a single speck of it, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity announced that they will scale back their lobbying efforts.

In ‘Carbon capture: Miracle machine or white elephant‘, the Financial Times noted “Few technologies have had so much money thrown at them for so many years by so many governments and companies, with such feeble results.”

Was it ever anything more than a useful fuction?

Even above and beyond the problems already mentioned, necessary infrastructure, such as pipelines, to handle captured CO2 and transport it to storage sites are not always conveniently available.

Underground storage of CO2 is also questionable. Leaks are pretty much inevitable. A slow leak would release the CO2 back into the atmosphere, while catastrophic leaks from, say, an earthquake, could be lethal to surrounding populations as CO2 is deadly when concentrated.

Where carbon capture has been implemented (primarily in natural gas refinery operations), the costs are offset in part by selling the CO2 for ‘enhanced oil recovery’, that is: pumping compressed CO2 into depleted oil wells which forces more oil to the surface. But this is neither considered ‘sequestration’ nor is it climate friendly. Quite the reverse.

Still, governments continue to dole out the cash for CCS projects. Doing so is viewed, politically, as ‘taking action’ to reduce emissions. Energy companies on the other hand, have not invested significantly into BECCS or CCS. Governments, that is, we the taxpayers, are instead footing the bill for this endless nonsense.

None of this bodes well for a miraculous, rapid and effective scaling up of BECCS as climate savior. Just recently, DRAX, one of UK’s largest power companies, announced that they were abandoning their ‘White Rose’ BECCS project.

That project, sometimes billed as ‘carbon negative’, was to involve construction of a sizeable new coal plant (the first new plant in UK since 1972). DRAX was slated to receive millions in government subsidies for mixing wood pellets with coal and, in theory at least, capturing and burying some proportion of the CO2 emissions.

Now, as the Paris climate negotiations are just beginning, the UK announced they will altogether drop their promised ‘pioneering’ funding competition for CCS.

Now what? Ah yes: ‘CO2 recycling’

The idea that we can somehow remove CO2 from the atmosphere is highly appealing. But so far it is simply not possible, and BECCS, even if it existed and was affordable, could not achieve that.

Nevertheless, polluting industries, with their slick PR machinery and near infinite budgets, stand prepared to hype whatever will allow them to maintain business as usual: whether it is clean coal, carbon neutral bioenergy, or negative emissions. These are the lies and false promises upon which we are expected to hang our hopes.

In reality, they are pointless babble, smoke and mirrors designed to distract a public that is finally coming to recognize the causes and magnitude of the climate crisis but which still remains naively vulnerable to false hopes for a magical technofix.

As the Paris climate negotiations are under way, we bear witness the latest fad: ‘CO2 recycling’. Instead of putting serious attention to addressing the roots of the problem, we are encouraged to embrace an entrepreneurial and stylishly clever mindset that CO2 is no longer a ‘problem’ but should instead be viewed as a valuable commodity! Why not make stuff from CO2 and sell it? We can profit from our own pollution!

Recently, ‘XPrize’ announced a collaboration with the American energy company, NRG and the oil sands innovation alliance (Cosia) to provide a $20 million bounty for development of a technology capable of making something of value from CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

But, recall the famous 3R’s of waste management? Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. We learned that reuse and recycle only slightly postpone the approach into landfills: a blink of the eye in the lifetime of a plastic.

As it turns out, reduce is really the key, it alone addresses the root of the problem. The same is likely to be true for CO2. The only seeming reason to make CO2 products dependent on the perpetuation of an unsustainable and polluting industry (to generate the CO2) is to keep the polluting industry alive.

A fairy tale with no happy ending

This idea of CO2 recycling brings to mind the famous fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin. In that story, the princess is commanded to spin straw into gold. A magical imp offers to assist her with this impossible task, but only if she promises to hand over her firstborn child to him. When her child is born, the imp offers that if she can only guess his name, she can keep her child. Happily, she succeeds.

Now we have the fossil fuel industry, XPrize backers representing some of the most atrociously polluting industries, and even some well intentioned people who genuinely, if naively, wish for a technofix to ‘solve the climate problem’ demanding that we spin gold out of CO2 emissions if we want our children to have a decent future.

But we don’t actually have to play mind games with magical imps. We know of tried and true solutions to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Those include a global transition away from industrial agriculture and towards agroecology, good soil practices and the restoration of native ecosystems, including the halting of deforestation.

Overall good stewardship of the land and nature would take us much farther towards healing the atmosphere, something that many, including organizations such as La Via Campesina (the peasant farmers), Global Forest Coalition, Indigenous Environmental Network and indigenous peoples around the world have long fought for.

Those real solutions will not generate ‘renewable energy’ or marketable products and therefore are not technically ‘negative emissions’. They do not rely on shiny new technofixes or pretend to ‘recycle’ pollution. Importantly, they are not so amenable to monetization, corruption, or corporate monopolization.

Hence they are rarely given more than lip service, and when they are, it is in the context of bringing them into the market, and providing offsets for polluters as in the case with forests and ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation’ (REDD) and ‘Climate Smart Agriculture‘.

What is needed more than ever is to see through the smoke and mirrors, stop providing massive funding for lifelines to the polluting industries and embrace the obvious and common sense solutions that are tried and true, and remain our best hope.