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DEADWOOD, S.D. - Leaders of Western states banded together Sunday to call on the federal government for help in funding new technologies for clean coal energy.
Meeting in this historic 19th century gold mining town, the Western Governors' Association unanimously supported a resolution by Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. urging the federal government for money and flexibility to move ahead on a spectrum of energy technologies.
The primary goal: to make coal power environmentally acceptable for future generations by pumping its greenhouse emissions underground to combat global warming.
"With this resolution, the Western governors now have said, 'This is important work and we are committed to leading out on it,' " explained Huntsman's energy adviser Dianne Neilson.
The governors hope that federal funding for reducing coal pollution, spent in the East for decades, will begin to flow to Western states that not only have vast coal reserves but the subterranean geology to hold the resulting carbon gases underground.
The resolution emphasized funding large-scale testing of so-called carbon sequestration technology that allows carbon dioxide and other gases produced by coal-fired plants to be captured, compressed and stored deep in the earth rather than released into the atmosphere. The governors also called for support in developing renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.
"The West is on track if we continue to aggressively pursue these kinds of energy policies," said South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds. "More needs to be done to get this energy, including capturing and sequestering carbon."
A panel of energy experts briefed the governors on the technical and funding challenges of coal sequestering.
Gregory McRae, a professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the governors that injecting carbon dioxide into the earth is feasible, but has yet to be proven on a large scale.
"We have to build public confidence in the technology's safety and that [the carbon dioxide] is going to stay there," McRae said. "There is a really critical need for large scale studies. We have to do some tests to convince the public this is a safe thing to do."
But Jonathan Schrag, director of the sustainable energy center at Columbia University's Earth Institute, warned carbon sequestering will not come cheap. Consumers can expect the price of electricity to climb from 30 percent to 60 percent.
Still, he encouraged the states to accept the risks of being pioneers in the technology, despite its early costs. Services and industries associated with carbon sequestering will cluster in the pioneering states, repaying the risk takers with high tech economic growth.
In answer to Huntsman's question on what states can do to expedite coal sequestering technology, McRae called for research on a Manhattan Project scale through meaningful incentive programs.
"It has to be incentive driven," said McRae. "That would open a much broader spectrum of solutions."
But John O'Donnell, president of the solar power company Ausra Inc., offered the governors an alternative to coal-power generation: large-scale renewable energy projects. The necessary technology, he said, is about to enter the market.
Solar, geothermal and wind energy's remaining barrier is finding cheap investment capital. Because lenders perceive a high risk in investing in yet-untested renewable energy projects, financing remains expensive, O'Donnell said. "How fast renewable energy enters the market and becomes viable depends on how fast we can deal with the risk-adjusted cost of capital," he said.
O'Donnell said the states must lend money directly or develop loan-guarantee programs to help renewable energy over this final barrier.