The fossil fuel industry has long touted natural gas as a “bridge fuel”—abundant and reliable, cleaner than coal, and an essential stop-gap while the world transitions to renewable power. Now it is suggesting that gas can be a zero emissions power source all by itself.
Start-up NET Power has developed technology that differs from traditional power stations. It burns natural gas with oxygen instead of air and drives a turbine with high pressure carbon dioxide instead of water. The additional CO2 is captured for storage.
NET Power recently connected a 50MW demonstration plant to the Texas electricity grid. If its emissions were to be permanently sequestered, the plant might have a carbon footprint no bigger than a solar farm.
The company CEO called it “a Wright-brothers-first-flight kind of breakthrough for energy.” Other efforts such as start-up Clean Energy Systems are working along the same lines. And that raises an ironic possibility. Could a fossil fuel technology help launch the power sector to a low-carbon future? Or will we get burned as we did with so-called “clean coal”?
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It’s Worth The Shot
1. The world runs on gas. More energy in the US and EU is sourced from the natural gas grid than from the electricity grid—and around a third of all US electricity is generated from gas. A low-carbon technology that uses existing supply chains and can be integrated into today’s infrastructure could be quick to deploy—helping us to actually hit some of our ambitious climate goals.
2. Zero emission gas could pave the way for direct air capture. These power plants would capture a massive amount of carbon dioxide. One of the difficulties is finding somewhere to put it. Profitable power plants could drive the development of sequestration technologies we will need if we are ever to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at scale. And that can only help the nascent negative emissions industry.
3. It’s better than a return to coal. Coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, is making a comeback in some regions due to energy insecurity. Any technology that helps prevent us backsliding is worth investing in. This is one of the circumstances in which the cliché applies: don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
4. We have the technology in hand. NET Power’s system doesn’t rely on wishful thinking. With a few modifications, the technology might also enable the production of green hydrogen for transportation and industry, according to this intriguing New York Times profile.
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It’s A Bridge to Nowhere
1. CO2 is worth more in the air than in the ground. NET Power says all CO2 captured by its commercial plants will be “permanently stored or utilized.” One of these is great. The other opens the door to using the new CO2 to give soft drinks their fizz, make fertilizer (the biggest market for CO2 today), or even in oil and gas recovery. All of these would only delay the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, making a mockery of the technology’s “zero emissions” claims.
2. It doesn’t solve the methane problem. The intensive process of extracting methane—the largest component of natural gas—uses millions of gallons of water, and can create toxic air and water pollution. What’s worse, the fossil fuels industry is responsible for around 13 million tons of methane leaks annually. Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and has been blamed for a quarter of the planet’s warming so far.
3. It perpetuates petrocracy. One of NET Power’s projects is to use its technology to create liquid natural gas that can be exported to Europe and other parts of the world. This could help them reduce their dependence on Russian gas but does little to spur the move to more sustainable energy sources. And when that LNG is burned in a traditional power plant or road vehicle, its CO2 is, of course, released.
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What to Keep An Eye On
1. The money… always the money. NET Power has been cagey about the costs of its systems and processes, with its CEO Ron DeGregorio saying the technology opens “an economical pathway to decarbonization.” If the new plants require a carbon tax to fund the recovery and sequestration of CO2, it could limit their roll-out.
2. Carbon vaults. There is no point capturing carbon from natural gas power plants if there’s nowhere to put it. The US Department of Energy has a public database of carbon capture and storage projects around the world (although it hasn’t been updated since 2018)..
Many direct air capture projects, like Climework’s recently announced Mammoth facility in Iceland, are co-located with carbon storage in rock formations underground. But suitable geology doesn’t always match up with where the world needs power stations .
3. Progress plugging methane leaks. Qatar just announced that it intends to reduce nearly all methane emissions from oil and gas operations—although not until 2030. With new methane-tracking satellites coming online, it will get easier to see who lives up to their promises.
Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine