Can 'Clean Coal Technology' Be Cost-Effective for Natural Gas?

Nations have sunk billions of dollars into carbon capture and storage for coal plants and have little to show for it. A new natural gas demonstration plant outside Houston is confident it is up to the task — without using federal grants.

2 minute read

April 14, 2017, 8:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Natural Gas

QiuJu Song / Shutterstock

In this "All Things Considered" radio report, science correspondent Christopher Joyce visits the NET Power plant natural gas power plant, still under construction, and speaks with the chief executive officer, Bill Brown. "[W]e'll be the first technology that takes fossil fuels and cleans up the carbon at no extra cost," claimed Brown. [An audio version is accessible in the article].

Applying carbon capture technology to coal plants has a long track record of canceled and "on hold" projects, not just in the United States, but in Canada and Europe as well, according to the Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies program at MIT, which stopped compiling data last September. The Petra Nova project, also outside Houston, may be the exception. More on that later.

Private funding is backing the new technology that will power the 50-megawatt demonstration plant in La Porte, Texas.

The engineering firm CB&I, and power company Exelon are partners. So is Toshiba. Toshiba's contribution is the turbine.

Most turbines make electricity when you force high-pressure steam through them. But Brown's turbine doesn't use steam. The plant burns natural gas to make high-pressure carbon dioxide — and uses that CO2 to drive the turbine.

 Support from environmental groups?

Some environmentalists are excited by the technology. "From our point of view, we're talking about climate protection," said George Peridas, an engineer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several environmental advocacy groups that support carbon capture research. "From the standpoint of the fossil fuel producers, I think they are looking at the bottom line. They are looking at survival; they are looking at creating new jobs."

 Competition from renewables? 

Right now, renewable energy is growing faster than any other source of energy, said Jonathan Levy, an energy investment analyst at Vision Ridge Partners.

"With the cost of wind and solar where they are, and continuing to decline," he told me, "it's hard to see why you'd go all in on a big fossil project that is more expensive than the other technologies."

The aforementioned Petra Nova project is included in a full-length feature article on CCS technology by Brad Plumer of Vox. Notwithstanding the miserable track record of most CCS plants, the technology "is garnering a surprising amount of support in Congress right now, with Democrats and Republicans working together to craft a pair of tax and finance bills that could help carbon capture spread more widely —  not just for coal, but for gas plants, ethanol plants, steel plants, and other sources of pollution," writes Plumer.

Monday, April 10, 2017 in NPR

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