Carbon capture probably gets the least respect of any technology proposed to slow climate change. The basic idea—trapping emissions from fossil fuel-power plants before they’re released into the atmosphere—seems sound. But attempts to build carbon-capturing plants have all run into the same problem: the process makes the plant less efficient, and thus more expensive to operate.
A company called NET Power hopes to change that. At their 50-megawatt demonstration plant outside Houston, the company is testing a way of drawing power from natural gas that (they say) is at least as cheap as traditional methods—and captures 100 percent of the resulting carbon emissions. Instead of using steam to push a turbine, as in a traditional power plant, Net Power uses pressurized CO2, which increases efficiency while keeping the CO2 contained.
“We’ve designed a power plant that is cheaper and cleaner,” said Chief Executive Officer Bill Brown. “Imagine that, when you have economics driving a solution rather than policy aspirations.”
Helping the economic case for NET Power’s technology are commercial uses for that captured CO2, like plastics, chemicals and building materials. One of the biggest uses for CO2, however, is enhanced oil recovery: injecting carbon dioxide into the earth to help extract greater quantities of fossil fuels.
Brown doesn’t see that as undercutting the company’s mission. “The problem is not to keep it in the ground,” he said. “The problem is to keep it out of the air.” Continuing to use fossil fuels is fine, in other words, as long as they’re only burned in NET Power-style plants.
Rodney Allam, the British engineer who invented the core technology, sees it as a necessary compromise while renewables get up to speed. “We have to realize that the energy from renewables will only provide a small portion of the total world requirement for energy,” he said. “So unless we solve this problem of emission control and the burning of fossil fuels, we won’t have a sustainable future.”