Can Carbon Capture Technology Prosper Under Trump?

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Carbon capture equipment at the Petra Nova plant southwest of Houston. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Carbon capture equipment at the Petra Nova plant southwest of Houston. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times

THOMPSONS, Tex. — Can one of the most promising — and troubled — technologies for fighting global warming survive during the administration of Donald J. Trump?

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.

Coal is unloaded at the NRG power plant in Thompson, Tex., where a carbon capture system will soon be operating. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Coal is unloaded at the NRG power plant in Thompson, Tex., where a carbon capture system will soon be operating. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times

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.

Carbon capture systems are not just expensive to build; they tend to be power-hungry, and make the plant less efficient over all — a problem known as “parasitic load.” The Petra Nova carbon capture process gets its energy from a separate power plant constructed for the purpose, which NRG says makes the system more efficient than it would otherwise be, and frees up all of the capacity of the main power plant to sell all of the electricity it produces. The company estimates that the next plant it builds could cost 20 percent less, thanks to lessons learned this time around.

If Petra Nova succeeds, it means a boost for carbon capture. Despite carbon capture’s problems, its supporters, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency, call the technology, known as carbon capture sequestration, crucial for meeting emissions standards that can prevent the worst effects of climate change.

“If you don’t have C.C.S., the chance of success goes down, and the cost of success goes up,” said Julio Friedmann, an expert at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California and a former Energy Department official. “If you do have C.C.S., the chance of success goes up and the cost of success goes down.”

Carbon capture is proving itself, said David Mohler, the deputy assistant secretary for clean coal and carbon management at the federal Energy Department.

Developing technologies often involves delay and cost overruns initially, he said. “You cannot engineer all the bugs out from inside a cubicle — you really have to do this stuff in the real world,” he said.

Driving down costs, he noted, is what engineers and businesses do through research, development and production. He cited the plummeting cost of initially expensive technologies like solar power. “We do figure things out as we go,” he said.

What the Trump administration will do with carbon capture is, at this point, anyone’s guess. “The technology only makes sense in a world where you are seeking to avoid putting CO2 into the atmosphere,” said Mark Brownstein, a vice president for the climate and energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

But some supporters of the technology see reasons for hope.

“I actually think it’s a moment of optimism,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who met with Mr. Trump last month as a potential agriculture secretary. Ms. Heitkamp co-sponsored legislation with another Democrat, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, to expand and extend tax breaks for carbon capture projects. “What I saw with the president-elect was a laserlike focus on jobs,” she said. “I think he was intrigued” about the economic opportunity that carbon capture could provide to keep coal power generation in the national mix, she added.

A crane hauls a 70-ton turbine in La Porte, Tex. A consortium of companies aims to produce electric power efficiently by driving the turbine with superheated carbon dioxide. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times
A crane hauls a 70-ton turbine in La Porte, Tex. A consortium of companies aims to produce electric power efficiently by driving the turbine with superheated carbon dioxide. Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times

One of the pillars of Mr. Trump’s campaign was his intention to revive the fortunes of the coal industry through support of so-called clean coal. And while the exact meaning of the much-used phrase is open to interpretation, it generally includes not just technologies that remove soot and smog-causing pollutants, but also carbon dioxide.

Ms. Heitkamp said that businesses, too, were likely to continue development of carbon capture technology, since they planned their plant investments on a curve of decades and are loath to change course because of a single election. “The decision they are making is not, what does the political outlook look like today? What’s it look like over the life of this plant?”

Although she concedes that a full-scale revival of coal’s fortunes is unlikely, carbon capture could be a way to extend the life of current facilities while keeping the nation’s energy mix diverse.

Jeff Erikson, general manager at the Global C.C.S. Institute, which promotes the technology, said he did not expect to see a great number of new coal plants on the way. “I wouldn’t say carbon capture is going to rescue the coal industry,” he said, but pointed out that there is great potential for applying carbon capture to diverse natural gas plants and to industrial applications. Captured carbon can be used not just for oil production but a widening range of industrial processes, or can even be pumped into the ground.

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.