This article is part of Upstarta series about young companies using new science and technology.
LA PORTE, TEXAS — It wasn’t like in the movies. No one pulled down a large switch on the wall, which produced a satisfying “thump” and crackle of electricity. Instead, one evening last November, a sports director for NET power, a clean energy technology company, clicked the mouse several times in a control room in a double-wide trailer. With the final click, the company’s generator synced to the Texas grid, a major step toward powering homes and businesses. Twenty-seven minutes later, the supervisor disconnected.
It may not sound like much, but that brief display at this demonstration plant — at a fraction of the capacity of a full facility — showed that a new way of generating electricity that burns natural gas but doesn’t generate the same greenhouse gas emissions as fossil fuels, could play nicely with the country’s power grid.
Cam Hosie, head of 8 Rivers, NET Power’s first shareholder, said he was following the test on his laptop that night. When the plant ran out of sync, he remembered, “I cried.”
It was a milestone for NET Power, which had been working on the technology for 12 years. That synchronization — a tricky feat to match grid frequency and other characteristics — sparked a huge surge of interest as companies looking for a cleaner way to generate power began looking for licenses. for NET Power technology. Potential customers have announced plans for new plants around the world, including in the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.
“If this became commercially deployable, it could play a key role in our ability to achieve net-zero targets in the US and globally, among other things,” said Carrie Jenks, executive director of the environmental and energy law program.
Most power plants boil water by burning coal or natural gas, or by nuclear fission; the resulting steam then spins a turbine. Burning those fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, the main culprits in climate change. Scientists warn that if we can’t stop those emissions, bigger and bigger disasters lie ahead.
Renewable energy (such as solar, wind and geothermal energy) has grown enormously as its price has fallen. But many experts suggest the grid still needs electricity sources that can be started up quickly — what the trade is calling “dispatchable” power — to fill gaps in the solar and wind supply. And while some researchers have suggested that the power grid can be built entirely on renewable energy and storage, Professor Jenks said: “I think fossils will remain in our energy system for the foreseeable future.” And so “you need a whole range of solutions to continue on the path you have taken. We don’t know what the silver bullet is yet—and I doubt we’ll ever find a silver bullet,” she said.
That’s where NET Power fans say the company can make a difference: The technology burns natural gas without causing the biggest problems that fossil fuels typically cause. It burns a combination of natural gas and oxygen in a high-temperature circulating stream of carbon dioxide under tremendous pressure. The resulting carbon dioxide drives the turbine in a form known as a supercritical fluid.
In other power plants, capturing carbon dioxide means adding separate equipment that consumes a lot of energy. NET Power’s system captures the carbon dioxide it creates as part of its cycle, not as an add-on. The excess carbon dioxide can then be drained and stored underground or used in other industrial processes. The plant’s operations do not produce any of the health-damaging particulates, or the smog-producing gases such as nitrogen and sodium oxides, that coal-fired power plants spew.
Its any other by-product? Water.
With commercial success, NET Power believes it will meaningfully reduce global carbon emissions, said Ron DeGregorio, the company’s CEO. Many potential customers could still opt for coal power, but “bring it to the market in a credible way and it will change the world.”
The company will license its technology to its customers, and its partners and investors will build and operate the factories. They include oil giant Occidental Petroleum, which is making a big bet on carbon capture; Constellation, which runs power plants; and Baker Hughes, which manufactures the kind of precision equipment the process requires. That kind of investment, said Rick Callahan, the president of Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Occidental, “shows that people are putting their money into this project.”
The technology, like any power generating equipment, can be applied in a number of ways, including generating power for industrial processes. Potential customers are imaginative. An iteration of the process, planned by the energy company TES, founded in Belgium, proposes to incorporate NET Power technology into a complex chain of energy storage and generation as a way to provide hydrogen-based power. “The NET Power technology is a perfect fit” for the proposed system, said Jens Schmidt, chief technology officer for TES.
Another project proposed in Louisiana would use NET Power’s technology to produce various products, including hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Known as G2 Net Zeroit would also include a liquefied natural gas export terminal, or LNG Charles E. Roemer IV, the company’s chairman, said that while many LNG export terminals are planned or under construction in the Louisiana coast, building a cleaner alternative would require could create a new paradigm.
The technology has drawn criticism, particularly over its reliance on methane infrastructure and current limitations on carbon storage. many environmentalists against LNG terminals, largely because they increase fossil fuel use; the Sierra Club recently focused on plans for Cameron, in southwestern Louisiana, including G2 Net-Zero, arguing that they will cause serious environmental damage to the area†
“As long as a power plant is powered by methane gas, it will continue to harm our climate and our communities,” said Jeremy Fisher, senior advisor for strategic research and development for the Sierra Club. “This technology would do nothing to protect families living with pollution from fracking wells or next to dangerous gas pipelines, and it would continue to capture the vast — and often undervalued — amount of climate-warming methane that leaked from wellheads, pipelines and factories.”
Mr Roemer referred to research showing that proper monitoring and prompt action can significantly reduce methane leaks and said he would work with natural gas suppliers “committed to reducing emissions”. As for exporting LNG to be burned elsewhere, he said someone who receives their LNG can burn it in another NET power plant and avoid greenhouse gas emissions. “I’m going to sell my product to people who are committed to the same things I’m committed to,” he said.
“The problem we are trying to solve is abundant, clean, affordable energy,” said Mr. Roemer. “I don’t understand how you can be against what I’m doing.”
If countries make it profitable to capture and store carbon dioxide through regulation, technologies like NET Power’s will become even more attractive. But while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly pointed to carbon capture and storage as part of the climate change solution, the details have yet to be worked out — and many in the climate science community are viewing the technology as an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels. . fuels, no good faith effort to decarbonise†
“What do you do with that CO2?” asked Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University. “If it is used to improve oil recovery, it still contributes to the problems. If it is buried, how safe and permanent is it buried?”
Supporters of the technology note that solar and wind energy seemed remote before government incentives helped refine the technologies and lower costs. Virginia Burkett, a leading scientist with the United States Geological Survey, said carbon sequestration in deep geological formations was a “proven technology” and noted that the National Academies of Science named it ready for large-scale application in 2019.
Julio Friedmann, an expert in carbon removal technologies, called NET Power’s technology “an incredibly elegant solution to a difficult problem.” dr. However, Friedmann, who has served as a consultant to the company, said success on a commercial scale was not certain.
“I’ve had many discussions with physicists who say, ‘Physics is settled; the rest is just technology.’ Well, the technique is really difficult. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is,’ he says. “It’s still possible they will fail — but I don’t think so.”