Environmental project in Northern Michigan holds promise for energy future

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co2_graphicsmall1By Andy Balaskovitz
Great Lakes Echo
March 28, 2009

More than 3,000 feet below the ground in Gaylord, Mich., scientists hope to find solutions to America’s energy dilemma.

They seek evidence of a coal-powered future that does not contribute to global warming. And Michigan may be sitting on a key part of the answer.

Last year they injected 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) underground into a geological feature called a saline formation. They want to see if it will stay there forever.

If it works, they hope CO2 emissions from coal plants can be safely stored underground and not released into the atmosphere where they are known contributors to global warming.

It is the largest CO2 injection by this method in the Midwest and will serve as a basis for similar projects, said Lynn Brickett, project manager for the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a branch of the Department of Energy (DOE) in Pittsburgh.

The CO2 injection well is owned by Core Energy in Gaylord, Mich.

Initial results are good, Brickett said. The CO2 is where they expect it to be and the Department of Energy wants to inject another 50,000 tons.

“So far there is no CO2 at the surface,” she said. “It [CO2] is moving throughout the reservoir consistent with what our models predicted.”

Since the injection, the part-liquid, part-gas CO2 at Gaylord has traveled less than 150 feet. This figure matches the DOE’s estimates, which means they can easily tell where the liquefied CO2 is and is not. For example, it hasn’t reached the surface or reached regions underground they weren’t expecting.

“That’s terrific,” she said.

Migrating CO2 to unknown regions is the biggest concern for capturing CO2. Scientists need to keep track of its location, but more importantly, if CO2 escapes underground and reaches the surface, it can be extremely harmful to humans.

Coal plants are one of the major emitters of CO2. With seven new coal plants in the application process, Michigan stands to benefit a great deal from leading in carbon capture technology.

The Federal government recognizes CO2 as a greenhouse gas and contributor to global warming. In Michigan, stationary sources like coal plants emit about 100 million tons of CO2 annually. In 2007, the U.S. emitted 21.5 billion metric tons of CO2 from coal-fired power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration.

However, the DOE estimates beneath Michigan’s surface is a storage capacity of between 22 billion and 87 billion metric tons for CO2.

“Cautiously, we’re looking at about 40 billion tons worth of capacity. If we can get 100 million tons per year underground, that’s 400 years worth of storage,” said Dave Barnes, a geologist at Western Michigan University and contributor to the DOE’s studies in Gaylord.

“That’s a lot. Certainly Michigan is unique for the Midwest region.”

That is why the DOE looks to Michigan and the surrounding region to store CO2 far below the surface. Government funding for the region has passed $100 million over the past 5 years.

The basic idea is to inject deep underground large quantities of carbon that would have otherwise gone to the atmosphere. Most methods involve liquefying the gaseous CO2 to provide mobility underground. Terms like “clean coal” mainly address carbon capture.

Michigan is part of the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, a consortium of private businesses, government agencies and universities that tests carbon capture in the Midwest. One in four Americans lives in this eight-state region which produces one-fifth of the U.S.‘s electricity. Three quarters of that electricity is from coal plants, which release about 830 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year (in the region), according to the consortium.

The Midwest consortium received in early November the DOE’s newest grant for exploring carbon capture sites. It was for $61 million and the plan, Phase III, will span 10 years. One million metric tons of CO2 will be injected over four years at an ethanol plant in Greenville, Ohio.

Brickett said the Gaylord test would be used as a model for future projects.

“Characterization [of a site] is crucial to this process,” she said.

West Michigan in particular has special geological formations crucial for capturing carbon underground, according to Barnes.

There are plans for a coal plant in Holland that would use carbon capture to store its emissions underground. Barnes said that project is just waiting for public and federal support to get it started.

Barnes said there are many places in the Mount Simon Sandstone formation, the underground reservoir that stretches from northern Michigan to parts of Indiana and Illinois, that are best for storing CO2.

“Michigan has plenty of bands that are at the optimal depth of between 2,600 and 6,500 ft.,” he said.


Three of Michigan’s major coal plant proposals call for creating 2,150 megawatts of power. While some of that will be generated from renewable fuels, the majority will come from coal. Those three will also account for most of the 15 million tons of annual CO2 expected by the proposed plants.

Consumers Energy’s application to expand its Karn/Weadock plant near Bay City is the largest proposed coal plant in Michigan at 800 MW. Clean Energy Now, a collection of environmental groups throughout Michigan, estimates the plant’s CO2 output at about 4.2 million metric tons per year.

At the same time, Consumers is preparing for regulations that may some day include capturing their carbon emissions, said Jeff Holyfield, director of news and information for Consumers Energy in Jackson.

“It’s an instance of prudent planning,” he said. “Our expectation is not if there will be regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, but when.”
Consumers’approach to carbon capture, as outlined in their permit, is to provide a sort of safety net for when the technology is widespread and commercially used.

Holyfield predicts that could take as long as 20 years.


CO2 that would have normally been emitted into the atmosphere from a company is instead liquefied and piped thousands of feet below the surface.

Underground depositories include oil and gas reservoirs, coal seams and empty saline reservoirs that once stored crude oil, natural gas, brine and CO2 over millions of years.

These three locations offer three different ways for capturing and storing carbon dioxide. The Gaylord pilot injection is filling an empty saline reservoir.

The enhanced oil recovery method injects CO2 into the ground to force out natural gas and oil from brines. The recovered gas and oil can be used or sold, while the CO2 stays in the ground. Traverse-city based Core Energy is the only company east of the Mississippi River using enhanced oil recovery with CO2.

This existing infrastructure made the northern Michigan region a particular place of interest, Barnes said.

The pipeline that takes CO2 from the gas processing plant about nine miles to Core’s injection site.

“CCS has been going on for years up north for oil and gas extraction. It produces a product that can be sold while at the same time storing CO2,” he said.

A third method of capturing CO2 is in coal seams that are unmineable. In most instances, CO2 is used similar to the oil recovery method for extracting the methane gas. However, this method is far more prevalent in Appalachia than it is in Michigan, where coal seams are more common.

There are also plans in Alma and Filer Township near Manistee to construct a coal plant that gasifies the coal before it’s burned. Pollutants are removed from that “syngas” and steam generated from the process and burning of the syngas can be used for energy.

Initial proposals for these two plants are yet to be approved by the MDEQ.


Perhaps one of the reasons why carbon capture is not employed on a commercial and national scale is due to safety, scale and cost concerns. Also, if carbon capture is a part of America’s future, then so is coal. Environmentalists claim using coal for energy is outdated and we must turn our attention to alternative fuels.

Clean Energy Now, a collection of environmental groups in the region, has been busy alarming the public to stop new coal plant proposals.

“Unless we change direction now and end the coal rush, Michigan will stand alone while the rest of the nation moves away from coal, creates renewable energy jobs and joins the fight against global warming,” said Cyndi Roper, executive director of the state chapter of Clean Water Action.

DOE officials say they’re checking to make sure CO2 will not migrate to the surface or contaminate drinking water.

Aside from emitting vast amounts of greenhouse gases, extracting the coal is cause for debate. Environmental groups feel strongly against practices like mountaintop removal — literally dissecting mountains from the top down to reach coal — a practice some argue is necessary for supplying America’s coal demand.

“Even if you capture CO2, you still have the mining process for extracting coal and energy demand for piping it underground,” said Tiffany Hartung, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club in Oakland County.

“We need to move toward clean energy technology. Coal is the fuel source of the past and coal power plants are the technology of the past,” she said.

Another concern: If large amounts of CO2 spread through groundwater or reached the surface, current regulations do not place liability on the company managing the leak.

Tremaine Phillips, energy program associate for the Michigan Environmental Council, said his group is worried about that.

“Companies who would like to employ this technology would not take on this liability. We’re opposed to that. Someone has to keep an eye on the sites,” he said.

“We’d like to say ‘let’s move policies away from coal all together,’ but we also know CCS has to be a part of the solution if it works,” he said.

There is no doubt that constructing coal facilities or retrofitting old plants capable of capturing carbon dioxide will prove costly. A concern is that these costs will be handed down to consumers.

But this might be a cold, hard fact of the future, across all types of energy.

“The simple fact is, whatever system is derived or policy is put in place to deal with CO2, customers will bear the cost in the end,” said Holyfield, of Consumers Energy. “Our first priority is to provide a reliable supply of energy at an affordable price.”


Last month Gov. Granholm issued a directive stating new coal plant permits must include ways to cut down on air pollution and seek alternative energies.

Consumers Energy reported last year that coal plants must be included in an energy portfolio that meets consumer demands.

Holyfield said Michigan will need 5,000 more megawatts of power by 2025. Among Consumers’ 1.7 million residential customers, a typical household uses 8 percent more electricity from coal than they did 10 years ago.

He addressed efficiency standards as an example and a solution to this rise. Consumers’ natural gas customers use 17 percent less gas than they did twenty years ago due to newer efficiency models in stoves, water heaters and furnaces, he said.

On the flip side, a plasma television uses four times more electricity than a standard television, he said.

“Energy efficiency can make a big difference. As customers make [those] decisions, they need to look within first,” he said.

Barnes said that while alternative energy is important for America’s future, coal-powered energy can not be simply tossed aside.

“Carbon capture gives us some confidence in a smooth transition into alternative fuels,” he said. “It would be unfeasible to unstrap the coal industry all at once.”

Speed and economics play an essential role in carbon capture’s future. The International Energy Agency and the Union of Concerned Scientists both came out recently saying that if carbon capture has even a slight future in America, it needs to happen now.

President-elect Barack Obama strongly supported carbon capture and keeping coal in America’s energy future. In Lansing on August 4, he said, “We’ll invest in technology that will allow us to use more coal, America’s most abundant energy source, with the goal of creating five first-of-a-kind coal-fired demonstration plants with carbon capture and sequestration.”

It may be 20 years before widespread carbon capture is in place and the prize of mitigating climate change is in reach. But in Michigan, the race has already begun.

7 thoughts on “Environmental project in Northern Michigan holds promise for energy future

  1. To learn more about alternative energy and coal energy in Michigan check out co-opconversations.org and come to Coal Night in Traverse City, MI on June 8th. The State theatre is hosting an informative event to discuss the dangers of Cherryland Electric’s proposed new Coal Plant. Listen to Dr. James Hansen, top NASA climate change expert and Bill McKibben, widely hailed global warming author. Get informed.
    Sustainability and alternative energy are both issues on everybody’s mind, and rightly so. As it is the basis for all future generations that follow ours, its better to get all the facts and explore the possibilities before their is nothing left for our sons and daughters. Assumptions are the biggest obstacles in our search for the truth.

  2. Michigan has no business continuing dependence on coal or being a guinea pig for the guesswork of carbon capture.

    Look at MI’s Public Service Commission website. Michigan spent a total of $37 billion on energy in 2007, with $.70 of every $1 going out of state. Enough throwing away our hard earned dollars for outdated, imported energy that pollutes our state.

    For every dollar that leaves our state importing coal, we are adding to the impoverishment and contamination of coalfield communities while destroying important headwaters of our Nation.

    Carbon, cost, and contamination are just a few of the downsides to coal. I admire that Americans love to dream, but right now is not the time to spend our money on fantasies.

    We must plug in the already existing technologies that will protect our most vital resources, improve communities, and provide new job sectors guaranteed to grow.

    We cannot be left behind during this proud time of American innovation and prosperous localized growth. We are beginning to understand that we cannot seek wealth without also seeking health.

  3. The Great Lakes basin is THE MOST DANGEROUS place on Earth to experiment with the unproven concept of injecting CO2 beneath us.

    CCS is not a “technology” because it doesn’t exist. It’s merely a concept that needs decades of expensive and risky experimentation to find out whether or not it might work. The uncertainties surrounding carbon capture should be kept away from the largest concentration of fresh surface water on Earth.

    “If large amounts of CO2 spread through groundwater or reached the surface, current regulations do not place liability on the company managing the leak.”

    Who would foot the bill for massive water restoration if experiments fail?

    We must caution against investing our sparse dollars in continued coal dependence while potentially risking international water dependence.

    “Beware of the water” alerts are in the news every day, whether you catch them or not.

    Michigan is not in any sort of energy “crisis” – thus we should not bear the burden of these costly and dangerous experiments.
    – MI has declining energy needs
    – MI has proposed more dirty coal plants then other states despite lack of demand
    – None of the 8 proposed plants will be “clean” or use carbon capture
    – Michigan can protect waterways, provide long-term safe and modern jobs, and keep the lights on without dangerous investments in more coal
    – Talk of CCS is promoting the fantasy that one day coal could be good for health and habitat.

    From cradle to grave coal damages our water.
    Just for perspective — Life can survive without energy, but life cannot survive without water.

    Our money needs to be spent investing in proven realities that create more jobs than they do illnesses.

  4. Taking a quick look at the properties of liquid CO2 suggests that it must be compressed to a minimum of about 600psi to maintain that liquid state, as was suggested in the article. The notion that liquid CO2, under those pressures, in a natural containment would remain in place forever is tough to accept without significant empirical evidence. A claim of being able to maintain the integrity of a natural, geologic containment area, such as a saline formation, for a pressurized liquid or gas “forever” begs to be questioned critically and scientifically.

    The article states that “if it works” there are hopes of storing CO2 emissions underground. My question is this: When or how will it be established that “it” actually “works” and that “forever” has been reached. Additionally, will the smaller tests that are being conducted be truly reflective of real-world conditions of storage on a much-larger scale?

    As suggested, there are concerns about a breach of the containment area where the CO2 gas — heavier than air — could create a lethal hazard for those in the area. Additionally, what concerns are there for potential acidification and/or degradation of the geologic structure over time? And, over how long of a time? Forever isn’t just one or two generations. Could this program be setting up a much larger problem for the future?

    Healthy skepticism does not mean being in opposition to seeking out new or better methods for dealing with CO2. Of concern however is that those people touting the proposal seem to be those who stand to profit from it. While there will probably be financial rewards for the project’s proponents, the risks will continue be borne by the public long after the profits have all been realized. Would this still be profitable if the proponents were required to maintain adequate site monitoring forever? Would it still be profitable if the proponents were required to maintain a truly-adequate surety to cover potential injury, damage and cleanup costs forever? Those who stand to profit from a new and unproven technology probably aren’t the proper ones to also certify its safety and efficacy.

    Historically, humans have viewed the environment as either being expendable or too vast to be negatively impacted by human activity. We mustn’t wait for evidence such as a flaming river to recognize that we have overtaxed a resource. If carbon sequestration is a viable option, it must stand on its own, under good, unbiased scientific scrutiny.

  5. Critical pieces of the puzzle are missing in this article, which relies far too heavily on the input of people trying to make a buck on carbon capture and storage (CCS). Among the information missing:
    – NONE of the coal plants in consideration in Michigan have sought environmental permits to use CCS — there are no provisions in any air permits for these, and there are no other environmental permits applied for (groundwater, deepwell injection, etc) for any CCS.
    – The Holland BPW submitted a grant proposal to DOE in January that is competing with much better funded project proposal, and that even if it were funded would only provide 3 years of funding for CCS — after which HBPW has given no indication of whether they would intend to continue to run the project.
    – the plants in permitting in Michigan have all declined to pursue IGCC, the coal plant technology that is thought to be most suited to CCS, if it is even possible.
    – none of the coal plants in Michigan are talking about the real cost of carbon control, much less the extraordinarily expensive pricetag of CCS if it is viable. Part of the unidentified cost is the enormous amount of energy needed to conduct CCS — reductions in electricity output is expected to run at least 40% from these facilities.
    – the enhanced recovery of oil and gas is not thought to be able to happen at the same time as CCS because the gas would be blasting residuals out of caverns, not being subject to permanent storage.
    – The commitment of storage capacity to CO2 for ever means better uses of this storage capacity will be forever foregone, while like nuclear wastes someone will have to assure these CO2 tombs are tended forever.
    I hope future reporting on this topic and others gets the full story.

  6. It is ironic, at best, that Consumers Energy’s notice to rate payers of a 10% increase in charges due this summer is caused in part by “decreased usage”. Given the State’s renewable energy goals and the potential for increased efficiency, the only “new” generating capacity should be replacement of a few old, inefficient, polluting coal fired plants.

  7. Pingback: The Geology News Blog · Geology Links for March 28th, 2009

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