By Russell Nichols
Using less water and natural gas than older models, the Sutter Energy Center came online in 2001, claiming to be one of the “cleanest” power plants ever built. Today, this 550-megawatt gas-fired plant is still standing southwest of Yuba City, but now lies at the heart of a heated climate clash.
Calpine, the Houston-based company that owns the Sutter Energy Center, presented a proposal to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District: to decarbonize the facility using carbon capture technology to help SMUD hit its ambitious target of zero carbon emissions by 2030.
The technology, developed by Colorado-based ION Clean Energy, would capture the facility’s carbon dioxide contained in the flue gas, shuttle it to an absorption tower, where it would bind with a liquid solvent before getting sent through a pipeline to be stored thousands of feet into the Earth.
With this sequestration equipment in place, Calpine officials say, the proposed project would capture at least 95% of carbon dioxide emissions.
According to Barbara McBride, director of strategic origination and development for Calpine, many studies show that using low-carbon resources — such as natural gas power plants with special technology to capture carbon — helps make the power grid cleaner and cheaper without sacrificing dependability.
“Having a clean source of energy to reduce carbon emissions will only support a common goal of ensuring the lowest possible carbon emissions while maintaining grid reliability,” McBride says.
In the United States, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology hasn’t exactly taken off — reports say none of the nation’s 3,400 coal- and gas-fired power plants are using it significantly right now. For one thing, it’s expensive. Also, while the technology is not new, deploying it on a large scale is relatively uncharted territory.
Critics have concerns about the potential environmental impacts, long-term implications and the safety of nearby communities. They see CCS systems as nothing more than a high-tech Band-Aid that will prolong reliance on fossil fuels. On the other side, proponents argue that California should consider all possible strategies, given the urgency of the climate crisis.
The federal government wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The state aims to have no more greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. And SMUD has a goal of being carbon-free by 2030, which, officials say, makes this proposal appealing as a short-term, reliable generation resource (not weather dependent) for clean power.
“While we think we can achieve 90% of our zero-carbon goal with current technologies, this project will help us reduce the last 10% of our carbon emissions while newer technologies like long-duration energy storage and hydrogen are brought to scale,” says Gamaliel Ortiz, a spokesperson for SMUD. “This project would allow more flexible use of the varied resources in our portfolio today.”
The proposal is currently pending environmental review. In addition to review by the California Energy Commission, Calpine officials say the company has submitted an air permit application to the Feather River Air Quality Management District and a Class VI well permit application to EPA Region IX.
From this project, Calpine anticipates at least 1.5 million hours of construction labor workforce and an additional 15 to 20 full-time jobs to operate the facility. This is a development project for Calpine with the expectation that SMUD will be the off-taker for the power, officials say. The program would run for a minimum of 12 years and “potentially longer through the energy transition,” according to Calpine.
The storage location will be about 10 miles southwest of the facility, with a 16-mile pipeline routed there. It will be going through farmland in unincorporated Sutter County, specifically designed to be at least 10 miles away from disadvantaged communities, according to officials.
The Sutter Energy Center is currently running at about 55% of its full capacity. With the new CCS project, operation is expected to increase to about 85%. The concentration (pound per megawatt) of “criteria pollutant emissions” released from the smokestack won’t change, officials say, adding that Calpine will be exploring better methods for managing these emissions.
With the facility operating more frequently, annual emissions (in tons per year) might be higher than before, officials say, but they’ll remain within the allowed limits. Any impacts from these changes in emissions will be evaluated during the permitting process. If permits go through by mid-next year, construction would begin in 2025 with the facility operational in 2027.
In Need of Protections
Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 905 into law, which instructs the California Air Resources Board to create a carbon capture program. The goal of this legislation is to make sure any carbon capture, utilization and storage projects are effective and safe, and protect the people living nearby. To do this, project operators must, among other things, create air monitoring and mitigation plans, and avoid impacts on residential communities.
They also can’t use pipelines to transport carbon dioxide until the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) finishes making rules about how that should work (expected some time in 2024). According to Katie Valenzuela, senior policy advocate at the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), the CCS proposal at Sutter “flies in the face of protections won” in SB 905.
“We saw the project proponents’ decision to approach SMUD anyways as a political move,” says Valenzuela, who has been involved in environmental justice policy for the past decade and is a Sacramento City Councilmember. “They wanted the only utility promising to get to zero emission by 2030 to say this is necessary so they could use that to undermine that legislative victory for EJ communities.”
After Calpine made the proposal, opponents sent a letter with citations on May 17 to the SMUD Board of Directors. Signed by 18 environmental groups — including CVAQ, Sierra Club Sacramento, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, and others — the letter highlights failed projects, false claims and urges the directors to see the project as a “dangerous delay tactic.”
“CCS projects are very often poorly designed and can delay meaningful climate action, increase investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, and pose real potential risks to communities,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, SMUD has not adequately shown that the proposal at issue would meaningfully differ from earlier projects that resulted in such problems.”
According to Valenzuela, SMUD responded with a FAQ sheet from ION Clean Energy’s website. (ION did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Instead of moving forward with CCS projects, opponents would rather see SMUD take measures to help solve climate change through cheaper clean energy like wind and solar.
Carbon capture systems had never been billed as a climate solution until recently. In the past, they were used by companies for enhanced oil recovery, the practice of using chemicals, gasses, or heat to extract more oil from an oil field. CCS projects over-promise and under-deliver, representing “a false climate solution or even a climate scam,” according to Victoria Bogdan Tejeda, Climate Law Institute attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“While people desperately want this to be a climate solution, no facility is going to provide 100%carbon capture,” Tejeda says. “It takes so much energy to compress the gas and move it through the pipeline to inject it in a storage facility, which is fueled by an onsite power plant, so it just contributes to the same problem.”
Compressed carbon dioxide is not like the carbon dioxide used in soda streams — this odorless substance is “extremely dangerous,” she says, capable of disabling combustion engines or causing disorientation, asphyxiation and even death. For example, in 2020, a pipeline carrying compressed carbon dioxide ruptured in a Mississippi town, forcing hundreds to evacuate and putting nearly four dozen people in the hospital, suffering from breathing issues and disorientation. (Nobody died in this incident.)
“These projects are moving way ahead of any regulations that could possibly even protect against some of these harms,” Tejeda says. “Experts say these harms can never fully be eliminated. For any company proposing what it’s doing, it could put people at risk.”
Regarding the Sutter project, Tejeda adds: “This squarely falls under the category of the type of facility that would pollute the climate, only now to get paid to bury their carbon waste.”
For many years, the U.S. Department of Energy has invested in looking at how CCS technologies would work and could be used, according to Roger Aines, energy program chief scientist and lead of the Carbon Initiative at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is sponsored by DOE.
“As a result of that work,” he says, “we’re pretty confident they can be used safely and will achieve goals of removing almost all of the carbon.”
Aines highlights a series of demonstration projects around the country, each of which has put 1 million metric tons of CO2 underground. Safety has been the primary reason for these studies. To date, Aines says, they have found no safety issues.
“It’s not a question of if we do nothing, things are going to be perfect and we’ll live in a wonderful environment,” he says. “No, if we do nothing, we’re going to live in a terrible environment. We have to act and we have to act in ways that are appropriate, so the state of California is moving forward to say, ‘Let’s make them as safe and cost effective as we can.’”
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. Take our reader survey.