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Petra Nova is the Latest Success for Carbon Capture

January 10, 2017

Carbon capture at the WA Parish Plant in Texas has begun, marking a turning point for the electric sector. Constructed on schedule and on budget, the project is poised to become the world’s largest power sector capture unit, removing 1.6 million tons per year of CO2.

To keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, the International Energy Agency estimates that between 2020 and 2050, the world will need to cut CO2 emissions by about 40 gigatons annually, and that 15% of these reductions must come from carbon capture.

What makes the Petra Nova project at the Parish plant important isn’t just the amount of carbon dioxide captured, but how the project addressed practical concerns voiced by capture skeptics, including technical risk and profitability. Petra Nova’s solutions can be applied widely to other power plants, making large-scale expansion of carbon capture by 2050 more likely.

To understand these solutions, imagine you’re an experienced manager of a power plant. Your job is to keep your plant economic and running with few problems. Introducing a new pollution control method that takes energy to run, like carbon capture technology, hardly seems like your friend. But here’s how the project turned the challenges into plant-friendly, capture solutions:

Commercially Available Capture Technology– Carbon capture is a technology that has been around for decades. Petra Nova could pick from a large number of experienced carbon capture vendors willing to guarantee the performance and cost of the capture unit. They chose Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. That choice also gave them access to financing from Japan (the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and a loan from the Mizuho Bank insured by Nippon Export and Investment Insurance).

Sharing Oil Revenue– The Parish plant’s CO2 will be transported 81 miles to the West Ranch oil field. Selling the captured CO2 for deep underground injection that both produces more oil at aging oil fields, and at the same time permanently stores the CO2 is not new. But what makes this application unique is the power plant and the oil field are in partnership to share in the oil revenues. That provides more revenue back to the project operator beyond simply selling the CO2.

Limited Technical Risks– The plant owners decided to supply both steam and electricity to the capture unit from a separate 70 MW gas-fired cogeneration unit. This decision meant that carbon capture equipment had no impact on the energy output from the coal plant. The coal plant operates at the same efficiency as before, without steam and electricity losses. Furthermore, the cogeneration unit can sell any excess electricity – either produced before the capture unit is built, or any excess produced once the project is fully operational, during profitable peak electric price periods.

Will more power plants adopt carbon capture with the opening of the Petra Nova project? Federal incentives can help make this a reality — but Congress will need to act to ensure follow-up successes. Congress is considering extending and expanding the existing incentives for carbon capture and storage, known as 45Q, and making other changes that would lower project financing costs. Such changes would make the adoption of carbon capture on a significant number of power plants in the US more attractive and likely. That also means more learning, more innovation, and further cost reductions.

Not only is more widespread adoption of this technology needed to combat climate change, it would at the same time also further reduce U.S. imports of foreign oil. That’s a win-win which appeals to a wide range of interests, ranging from climate advocates to oil companies, labor groups and power companies.

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