Petra Nova: An Evolutionary Project

The future of coal-fired power and perhaps the most important technological solution to climate change can be found near Houston, home to the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture project installed on an existing power plant.

Earlier this month, NRG Energy announced the completion of the $1 billion carbon capture system, which was installed at the existing WA Parish Power Plant southwest of Houston. It has been described as an evolutionary project, because the technology can be directly applied to existing coal-fired power plants.

This applicability will be given greater value after the U.S. Clean Power Plan (CPP) is repealed by the new Trump administration or vacated by the courts. The CPP’s almost certain demise means much of the nation’s coal-fired generation will be preserved, creating more opportunities to retrofit those plants with carbon capture technology.

Although capturing, transporting and storing carbon dioxide (CO2) remains a risky undertaking due to cost and liability, the truth is most of the scientific community supports carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) as a critical tool for reducing CO2 emissions from power plants. Without CCS, the cost of greenhouse gas reduction will skyrocket.

Consider this: Fossil fuels will still be used to produce more than half of the world’s energy in 2060, which means CCS is not an optional technology if the world is serious about reducing climate change. CCS is vital to this end, Julio Friedmann, an energy expert and a senior fellow at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told the New York Times.

“If you don’t have CCS, the chance of success goes down, and the cost of success goes up,” Friedmann said. “If you do have CCS, the chance of success goes up and the cost of success goes down.”

The Petra Nova project received $300 million each from NRG, the largest independent power producer in the U.S., and JX Nippon, Japan’s largest oil producer. NRG also received $167 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative, and another $23 million from DOE under an appropriations bill. Another $250 million in loans was provided by two Japanese banks.

The system captures 90 percent of the CO2 emissions from a 240-MW slipstream of flue gas off of Unit 8, capturing 1.6 million tons of CO2 each year.  The process uses a proprietary KS-1 high-performance solvent for CO2 absorption and desorption that was jointly developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the Kansai Electric Power Co.

The captured CO2 will be piped 81 miles and injected into marginal oil wells to boost oil production, a process known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Oil producers estimate 60 million barrels of oil could be recovered from these wells using EOR. What’s more, the oil revenues would be used to pay for the operation of the carbon capture system. The problem with that, however, is the price of oil. The use of EOR is only cost effective at around $50 per barrel.

The project stems from the research gathered during a three-year pilot project at Southern Company’s Plant Barry, which successfully captured more than 150,000 tons of COannually. The same technology deployed at Plant Barry is being used at Petra Nova.

Petra Nova is one of two high-profile carbon capture projects in the U.S. The other is the Kemper County coal gasification plant in Mississippi. Although both capture CO2, they are vastly different projects.

Petra Nova uses pulverized coal, captures CO2 after combustion, and is a retrofit to an existing power plant. The 582-MW Kemper plant converts coal into syngas and extracts the CO2 from the gas before it is burned. In addition, the Kemper project is a new plant. Unlike Petra Nova, it is not a retrofit.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the cost and timeline for each project. Petra Nova was built in just two years and was completed on time and on budget (about $1 billion). The Kemper project has been plagued by several delays and was expected to be operational two years ago. Kemper’s cost has skyrocketed from $2.9 billion to $7 billion.

Considering President-Elect Donald Trump’s commitment to clean coal and public demands for reliable, low-carbon power, it now seems like putting a carbon capture system on an existing coal-fired power plant could be a viable option for many sites across the U.S.

What do you think? Contact me at Follow me on Twitter @RussellRay1.

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