This article is part of Upstart, a series about young companies harnessing new science and technology.
LA PORTE, TEXAS — It wasn’t like it is in the movies. Nobody pulled down a big switch on the wall, producing a satisfying “thunk” and crackle of electricity. Instead, one evening last November, a shift supervisor for NET Power, a clean-energy technology company, clicked a mouse several times in a control room set in a double-wide trailer. With the last click, the company’s generator synchronized with the Texas grid, a major step toward providing power to homes and businesses. Twenty-seven minutes later, the supervisor cut off the connection.
It might not sound like much, but that brief display at this demonstration plant — with a fraction of the capacity of a full-scale facility — showed that a novel 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 nation’s power grid.
Cam Hosie, who heads 8 Rivers, the earliest shareholder in NET Power, said he was monitoring the test that evening on his laptop. When the plant synced up, he recalled, “I cried.”
Harvard Law School executive director Carrie Jenks noted that “if this were to become commercially deployable, among other things, it may play a crucial role in our ability to accomplish net zero targets in the United States, as well as globally.”
Coal, natural gas, or nuclear fission are the most common fuels used to generate electricity, which is then used to generate steam to turn a turbine. Fossil fuel combustion produces greenhouse gases, the principal cause of global warming. Scientists say that if we don’t do something about these pollutants, we’re doomed.
As the cost of renewable energy (such as solar, wind, and geothermal power) has decreased, its use has increased significantly. To make up for any shortfalls in solar and wind power, many experts say the system would require “dispatchable” power sources that can be quickly activated. “I think fossil will continue to be in our energy system in the near future,” Professor Jenks stated, despite other experts suggesting that the electric grid could be built entirely from renewable energy and storage. This means that in order to continue along the path we need to travel, “you need a plethora of solutions.” “I doubt we’ll ever find a silver bullet,” she remarked. “We don’t yet know what it is.”
Fans of NET Power claim the firm has the potential to make a difference in this area because their technology can burn natural gas without producing the most significant issues that are generally caused by fossil fuels. High-temperature carbon dioxide is circulated through the combustion chamber, which burns a mixture of natural gas and oxygen. The turbine is powered by a supercritical fluid made of carbon dioxide.
Adding separate equipment that consumes a significant amount of energy is required in other power plants to capture carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide emitted by NET Power’s system is captured as part of the system’s cycle, not as an afterthought. If there is any extra carbon dioxide, it can be captured and employed in other industrial operations or buried for storage underground. This facility does not emit any of the harmful particles or smog-forming gases that coal plants do, such as nitrous oxide and sodium oxyde.
Is there any other byproduct of this process? Water.
NET Power’s chief executive, Ron DeGregorio, believes that commercial success will meaningfully reduce world carbon emissions. “Bring this credibly to market, and this transforms the world,” says the narrator of this article.
Rather than building and operating the plants on its own, the corporation licenses its technology to its customers and partners and investors. Occidental Petroleum, the world’s largest oil company, is placing a significant stake on carbon capture; Constellation, a power generation company; and Baker Hughes, a company that makes the specialized equipment needed for the process. It shows that “people are putting their money where their mouth is” with this project,” said Rick Callahan, the president of Low Carbon Ventures, Occidental’s subsidiary.
There are numerous ways in which the technology can be used to generate electricity, including powering industrial activities. They’re thinking beyond the box. In one iteration of the process proposed by TES, a Belgian-based energy firm, NET Electricity technology is included into a chain of energy storage and generating to deliver hydrogen-based power. According to TES CTO Jens Schmidt, “the NET Power technology is a natural fit” for the planned system.
NET Power’s technology might also be used in Louisiana for the production of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. While many liquefied natural gas export terminals are already planned or under construction in coastal Louisiana, the company’s chairman said that building a cleaner alternative could create a new paradigm in the energy industry in the state. Known as G2 Net-Zero, it would also include an export terminal for L.N.G.
The technology has been subjected to skepticism due, in particular, to the fact that it is dependent on methane infrastructure and the current constraints that exist regarding carbon storage. According to the Sierra Club, the planned G2 Net-Zero terminals in Cameron, Louisiana, will have a devastating environmental impact on the region, which is why many environmentalists are opposed to L.N.G. terminals in the first place.
Sierra Club senior adviser for strategic research and development Jeremy Fisher said, “A power plant fuelled by methane gas will continue to hurt our environment and communities.” Families living near fracking wells or dangerous gas pipelines would not be protected by this technology; instead, the vast volume of climate-warming methane that leaks from wellheads, pipelines, and facilities would continue to be allowed to leak..”
According to Mr. Roemer, he would engage with natural gas suppliers that were “dedicated to the decrease of emissions” if appropriate monitoring and prompt response could reduce methane leaks. Concerning the practice of shipping L.N.G. to other locations in order for it to be burned there, he stated that the recipient of his L.N.G. may use it to power another NET Power plant and therefore prevent the release of greenhouse gases. That’s where I intend to market my goods,” he stated.
Mr. Roemer explained that “the problem we’re trying to tackle is abundant, clean, and affordable energy.” It’s impossible for you to oppose what I’m doing.
NET Power’s technology will become much more enticing if governments make it profitable to absorb and store carbon dioxide. Carbon capture and storage has been regularly recognized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as part of the solution to climate change, but the intricacies have yet to be worked out — and many in the climate scientific community view the technology as an excuse to continue burning fossil fuels, rather than a genuine effort to reduce emissions.
“What are you going to do with all that carbon dioxide? Asks climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University. Even if it is utilized to increase oil recovery, it is still adding to the problem. if it’s buried, how secure and long-lasting is it protected from the elements? ”
Government incentives helped refine and drive down the cost of solar and wind power when they were considered far shots by proponents of the technology. A top scientist at the United States Geological Survey named Virginia Burkett described carbon sequestration in deep geological formations as a “proven technology.” She also mentioned that the National Academies of Science have stated that the technique is “ready for large-scale implementation” in 2019.
On the surface, NET Power’s carbon removal technology appears to be a “incredible elegant solution to a difficult problem.” However, Julio Friedmann, an expert on carbon-removal technologies and one of the company’s advisers who has worked with the company, cautioned that commercial success was not guaranteed.
As far as I’m concerned, “the physics is decided; the rest is just engineering.” Well, the engineering is quite difficult. Theoretically, there is no distinction between the two. According to him, “there is” in reality. Even if they do not succeed, it is still feasible, but I don’t think so.