Can Carbon Capture Technology Prosper Under Trump?
January 2, 2017
The New York Times
The technology, carbon capture, involves pulling carbon dioxide out of smokestacks and industrial processes before the climate-altering gas can make its way into the atmosphere. Mr. Trump’s denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change, a view shared by many of his cabinet nominees, might appear to doom any such environmental initiatives.
But the new Petra Nova plant about to start running here, about 30 miles southwest of Houston, is a bright spot for the technology’s supporters. It is being completed essentially on time and within its budget, unlike many previous such projects. When it fires up, the plant, which is attached to one of the power company NRG’s hulking coal-burning units, will draw 90 percent of the CO2 from the emissions produced by 240 megawatts of generated power. That is a fraction of the roughly 3,700 megawatts produced at this gargantuan plant, the largest in the Lone Star State. Still, it is enough to capture 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide each year — equivalent to the greenhouse gas produced by driving 3.5 billion miles, or the CO2 from generating electricity for 214,338 homes.
From a tower hundreds of feet above the Petra Nova operation, the carbon capture system looks like a fever dream of an Erector set fanatic, with mazes of pipes and gleaming tanks set off from the main plant’s skyscraping smokestacks and busy coal conveyors. Petra Nova uses the most common technology for carbon capture. The exhaust stream, pushed down a snaking conduit to the Petra Nova equipment, is exposed to a solution of chemicals known as amines, which bond with the carbon dioxide. That solution is pumped to a regenerator, or stripper, which heats the amine and releases the CO2.
The gas is drawn off and compressed for further use, and the amine solution is then cycled back through the system to absorb more CO2.
Petra Nova, a billion-dollar joint venture of NRG and JX Nippon Oil and Gas Exploration, will not just grab the CO2, it will use it, pushing compressed CO2 through a new pipeline 81 miles to an oil field. The gas will be injected into wells, a technique known as enhanced oil recovery, that should increase production to 15,000 barrels a day from about 300 barrels a day. And since NRG owns a quarter of the oil recovery project, what comes out of the ground will help pay for the carbon capture operation.
The plant, which has received $190 million from the federal government, can be economically viable if the price of oil is about $50 a barrel, said David Knox, an NRG spokesman. The company expects to declare the plant operational in January, Mr. Knox said. Aware of problems with carbon capture projects around the country and of the risks of hubris, he said: “We’re not going to declare victory before it’s time.”
If the price of oil stabilizes or rises, and if tax breaks for developing the technology continue and markets for carbon storage develop, he said, utilities might ask, “why would I not want to put a carbon capture system on my plant?”
But developing large-scale carbon capture has been neither straightforward nor easy. So far, problems have bedeviled major projects, often costing far more than projected and taking longer to complete. The federal government has canceled projects like Future Gen, which was granted more than $1 billion by the Obama administration.
One of the most innovative approaches to carbon capture is being tried 50 miles east of the Petra Nova plant, in La Porte, Tex., where a consortium of companies is trying an entirely new approach to low-carbon power generation.
In a $140 million, 50 megawatt demonstration project, the company, Net Power, will use superheated carbon dioxide in much the same way that conventional power plants use steam to drive turbines. This system, invented by a British engineer, Rodney Allam, eliminates the inefficiency inherent in heating water into steam and cooling it again. The power plant produces a stream of very pure, pressurized carbon dioxide that is ready for pipelines without much of the additional processing that conventional carbon capture systems require.
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