A Revolutionary Approach to Clean Coal
A DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGY
Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine January/Februrary 2013
THERE WAS A TIME when venture capital funds did not exist, and NET Power, a thermodynamic cycle technology, shows that - at least in some cases - technology development can be accelerated by avoiding venture capital and moving straight to partnerships with leading corporations.
In late 2010, the NET Power technology was at a developmental crossroads. We knew we had invented a majorly disruptive power generation technology. In an industry where technologies are either cheap or clean - but not both - NET Power is exceptional. It generates electricity from fossil fuels at a cost that is competitive with the cheapest current systems and it produces zero air emissions. It is truly cheap and clean.
To commercialize this new technology, though, we needed to raise money and a build a development team. New companies traditionally pursue venture capital at this stage. But large industrial technologies like NET Power do not fit the current venture capital model, which focuses on committing smaller sums of money to a greater number of companies and realizing returns within a smaller window. The resources we needed went beyond just financial capital.
Other companies seek government funding. We put NET Power in front of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory, which reviewed the technology intensely. But the DOE had recently deployed all of its funding dedicated to fossil fuel technologies and was not in a position to fund NET Power.
In the process of vetting our technology, we had begun working with large industrial energy companies. The exciting promise and potential impact of NET Power enabled us to attract the attention of some of the industry's leading power generators, manufacturers and engineering firms.
Traditionally, corporations such as these have been unfairly maligned for being poor innovators. There probably is some truth to the fact that many large companies struggle to develop truly disruptive innovation in-house. Certainly, technologies can be ignored, or even killed, because of the sacred-cow problem in which careers are staked to the success of an internal technology, or because of incentives that reward risk-averse behavior. But the highest levels of management at these companies seek ways to be disruptive while still focusing on their cash cows.
We began to see these firms as innovation partners - something much more than just potential customers or suppliers. They offered a tremendous array of resources and skills that we didn't possess internally and could not have gained from traditional financing sources. It became increasingly clear that they could play an essential role in fostering NET Power's development. And in NET Power, they saw a technology that could provide a strategic, long-term benefit to their businesses. There was much each side could gain from working together.
Ultimately, in June 2011, the namesake company formed to develop the technology, NET Power, launched a joint development partnership with three of the initially identified innovation partners - The Shaw Group, Toshiba and Exelon. The partnership serves as a model for large industrial innovation in how it blends the unique skills of an agile, innovative technology development company with the resources and experience of leading players in the industry.
The technology we are commercializing can revolutionize the power industry. NET Power is based on a novel, oxyfuel, supercritical CO2 cycle. It is highly
efficient - competitive with current natural gas combined cycle plants - and low-cost. At the same time, it produces zero atmospheric emissions.
The approach we used to develop NET Power highlights the value that firms such as ours can add to the world of corporate innovation. For example, we chose to design a new cycle from the ground up as opposed to developing further improvements to the natural gas or coal power systems that industry has focused on for decades. Why did we decide to start from scratch? Our guiding principle was that to provide a true energy solution that is capable of making a global impact, we needed to develop a technology that overcomes the clean-or-cheap barrier. It would have to be both.
Trying to cook up that type of solution using the same technology menu would be inherently flawed. In order to capture carbon from current power cycles, you must alter the system to make it do something outside of its originally designed intent. This means adding processes and equipment, which reduces efficiency and adds costs. By their very nature, these approaches will lead to more expensive electricity. This was a nonstarter for us.
Stepping back, we envisioned what we wanted from a fossil fuel power plant and we designed toward that end. We elected to use oxyfuel combustion to clean up our combustion byproducts, and we made the system a high-pressure, closed loop to give us greater control over those byproducts. We avoided using a steam Rankine cycle because it is inefficient. Most importantly, we looked into the thermodynamic properties of CO2 and discovered that, if used as a working fluid under the right conditions, it could overcome the inefficiencies of steam cycles.
NET Power should not be thought of in the same way as carbon-capture technologies because it inherently produces a high-pressure, high-quality stream of pipeline-ready CO2 as a function of how the cycle operates; thus, it cannot help but eliminate atmospheric carbon emissions. Because of this, our baseline cost of electricity comparison examines NET Power with 100 percent CO2 capture and no hidden value for CO2 against competing technologies operating without carbon capture. This keeps us honest to our original goal.
The advantages are clear, and the impact this development program can have is far-reaching.
For electricity generators, NET Power fully aligns the clean option with the economic option, without having to rely on market-distorting interventions like a carbon tax. The strictest environmental standards can be affordably met. The permitting process can become streamlined. In the United States and abroad, abundant domestic fuels can continue to be utilized - all while offering low-cost electricity to consumers.
NET Power can drive similarly important changes in the oil industry, both in the United States and abroad. Around 84 billion barrels of oil remain stranded in mature U.S. oilfields, but they are recoverable through enhanced oil recovery, which requires high-quality, high-pressure CO2. Unfortunately, companies cannot get access to enough CO2 at affordable prices because the cost of capturing it from power plants using current technologies is too high. NET Power changes this dynamic by enabling electricity generators to provide low-cost CO2 to the enhanced oil recovery market, adding huge economic value to their power plants while storing carbon dioxide that otherwise would have been emitted to the atmosphere.
The partnership we've created to commercialize this technology provides a clear path to success. Each participant brings its own unique capabilities and assets to the program. NET Power's team has a deep understanding of the technology, engineering creativity, and an occasional stubborn refusal to accept the industry status quo. Shaw, Toshiba and Exelon are exceptional corporations with tremendous strengths and abilities, including industry-leading know-how, deep subject-area expertise; capital and highly skilled employees. By aligning all of these resources behind NET Power and unwaveringly holding to our principle to build something that is not just better, but also cheaper, our team will deliver a disruptive technology to the power industry that gives our world a brighter future.