The University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research has received a $3 million grant to help develop technology that would capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants before it enters the atmosphere.
The grant from the U.S. Department of Energy comes at a crucial time, just two weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new proposed regulations to sharply reduce carbon emissions from new power plants.
Coal industry officials have said the regulations could further harm the industry, which already is suffering because of low natural gas prices and stricter environmental protections, because the new regulations require carbon-capture technology that hasn't yet been proven feasible on a large-scale basis.
On top of the $3 million, UK received $500,000 from the Carbon Management Research Group, an industry-based research consortium that includes American Electric Power, Duke Energy and LGE-KU.
At issue is how to capture carbon that escapes into the atmosphere as coal is burned for electric power. The research of principal investigator Kunlei Liu uses a chemical solvent in power plant scrubbers to capture carbon so it can be used elsewhere. This would allow power plants to use much smaller, more affordable scrubbers. The work is being tested at a mini power plant located at the center.
CAER director Rodney Andrews said carbon-capture technology is crucial in sustaining coal as a viable energy source.
"The technology is feasible, but it is not yet ready for full-scale implementation," Andrews said. "That's why this project is so important."
Andrews said the U.S. Department of Energy's goal is to have technology available by 2020 that can achieve a 90 percent carbon-capture rate.
Liu said he thought the technology could become available in the next five to 10 years.
His work is of great interest beyond the coal states of Kentucky and West Virginia as developing nations turn to coal for cheaper electricity. At Monday's announcement, UK President Eli Capilouto recalled a trip to China he took in 2012. He said Liu and other researchers were treated like "rock stars" by Chinese researchers.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said last week that the state will ask for flexibility in implementing the proposed rules on carbon emissions.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, called Monday's funding announcement good news but said, "We remain concerned that the federal government continues to put regulations on our industry that are not possible to meet in the real world, thus creating a de facto ban on our product."
Kentucky gets about 92 percent of its electricity from coal. But the industry, predominantly in Eastern Kentucky, has lost more than 6,000 jobs in the past 18 months, driving coal employment to the lowest level since the state began keeping records in 1927.
Environmental groups have said the proposed EPA regulations will bolster carbon-capture research already underway at places like UK.
Kentucky Energy Secretary Len Peters also spoke at Monday's announcement and summed up the tightrope that energy policy makers face.
"How can we in fact make coal more environmentally friendly, and how can we make sure that it provides a reliable and affordable electricity?" Peters asked. "At the end of the day, we cannot separate the environment from our energy needs and our economy."