The Next Zero-Emission Energy Innovation: Coal?

To the most optimistic energy observer, these promises are staggering: A natural gas or coal fired power plant with no smoke stack, zero atmospheric emissions, a significantly reduced footprint, reduced water use, and an existing market for its CO2 waste, all at a competitive price point. NetPower, a North Carolina-based company experimenting with Allam Cycle technology, has the support of major backers like Exelon, CB&I, and Toshiba in a quest to make good on these claims. Hundreds of fossil fuel power plants will be built over the next decade. If NetPower is successful, it may radically disrupt the global energy future by delivering viable zero-emission fossil electricity to market.

The Allam Cycle is a thermodynamic cycle that NetPower describes as a “high-pressure, highly recuperative, oxyfuel, supercritical CO2 cycle.” Its primary innovation is that uses its own sequestered CO2 instead of steam as working fluid. When Allam Cycle produced CO2 can no longer be recycled through turbines, it is high-quality enough to be marketed for enhanced oil recovery.

NetPower’s parent, 8 Rivers Capital, and its investors are currently constructing a $140 million 50MWth natural gas fired Allam Cycle demonstration plant near La Porte, Texas. The demonstration plant is a precursor to a serious 295MWth plant slated for completion by 2020, if all goes well. That is enough electricity generation capacity to power a small city. The demonstration plant is also a critical phase of NetPower’s research into the feasibility of Allam Cycle technology use with coal.

According to the 2016 International Energy outlook, “Electricity is the world’s fastest growing form of end-use energy consumption.” Growth in generation capacity is largely new fossil plants, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. Cost-effective elimination of atmospheric emissions is not a panacea for the environmental impacts of fossil power plants, but it would be an important bridge to global clean air and affordable power. Whether or not NetPower’s bold effort in energy innovation will pay off is a big, big if; but if it does, coal may well be positioned to become the zero-emission, zero-carbon power of choice world-wide.

In Depth: Energy

It is difficult – and perhaps even impossible – to overstate the relationship between readily available access to safe, affordable and reliable energy and individual prosperity and economic wellbeing. This is because energy is an input to virtually everything we produce, consume and enjoy in society. Think for a minute…

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