Durham’s NET Power breaks ground on zero-emissions plant
NET Power broke ground last month on an experimental power plant near Houston, Texas, and expects to start generating electricity there in March 2017. Some are predicting that if NET Power’s experiment works and produces power without polluting, scores of these futuristic energy projects would sprout in the coming years in the U.S. and around the world.
“This is no longer vaporware,” NET Power chief executive Bill Brown said of the Texas project. “We have invented something that might save the planet.”
Among the pollutants the power plant is designed to block: carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that’s blamed for global climate change. Instead of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, the NET Power plant would capture carbon dioxide and store it for permanent injection underground or for industrial applications.
NET Power’s plant would be so clean it would not require a smokestack. The ultimate selling point is that NET Power’s technology would cost about the same to build as a conventional power plant, thus obliterating the principal obstacle to pollution-free energy.
Brown said that a number of U.S. utilities have expressed interest in building a full-scale version of the plant if the 25-megawatt trial version succeeds in Texas. Brown, who spent years financing deals on Wall Street, is also co-founder of 8 Rivers Capital, the Durham technology commercialization firm behind NET Power.
Even if the project proved to be an engineering miracle, however, the NET Power plant would not please everyone. For one thing, it is designed to burn natural gas. The dependence on a fossil fuel, typically extracted by means of fracking, automatically renders NET Power’s “zero-emissions” claim a non-starter for some environmental advocates.
Additionally, NET Power intends to make its excess carbon dioxide available to energy companies for use in dislodging crude oil from subterranean geologic formations, a key step in advanced oil recovery. So the technology would either benefit from gas drilling or it would promote oil drilling.
‘Black swan technology’
Still, NET Power has attracted some high-profile environmental advocates, as well as prestigious industrial partners. Tim Profeta, director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions, is chairman of 8 Rivers Capital’s board of advisers.
He acknowledges the tradeoffs but said NET Power is a “worthy bargain.”
“It is truly a black swan technology that could change the game in power generation,” Profeta said. “The company expects it will become the preferred technology for power generation.”
Another supporter is John Thompson, the Fossil Transition Project director at the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force.
“If this technology works, it creates an entirely new pathway to economically cut CO2 at a massive scale in a very short period of time,” Thompson said. “Even if half of what they claim pans out, it’s a big deal. If 25 percent of what they claim pans out, it’s still potentially important.”
The technology in question is called the Allam Cycle, in which natural gas is not burned with air, but with a blend of pure oxygen and carbon dioxide. In this combustion process, the natural gas, oxygen and carbon dioxide burn at a pressure more than 10 times the pressure used in a conventional gas turbine.
This thermodynamic feat, which will be tested under real-life conditions next year in La Porte, Texas, approximates a rocket engine and has never been attempted by the power industry. Unlike a disposable rocket booster, however, the NET Power combustor would have to operate reliably for the duration of a power plant’s expected lifespan, anywhere from 25 to 50 years.