Navigant Research Blog

Zero Emissions from a Fossil Fuel Plant … Really?

— June 6, 2017

The claim of zero emissions from a fossil fuel plant sounds too good to be true. I was skeptical when I first read the headline, “Goodbye Smokestacks: Startup Invents Zero-Emission Fossil Fuel Power,” on the Science website. But on second glance, this does appear to be a big deal in the carbon capture realm.

Oxymoron or Innovation?

Author Robert Service notes: “Zero emissions fossil fuel power sounds like an oxymoron.” And indeed, it does. But the people behind startup NET Power believe its technology makes this possible. The company is backing a 25 MW demonstration plant in the Houston area that will be activated later this year. Basically, the plant will burn natural gas in a pure oxygen combustor. By using mostly pure, high pressure CO2, the plant can avoid the phase changes of traditional steam cycles. And instead of driving a steam cycle and losing heat up a smokestack, the NET Power plant retains heat within the system, resulting in less fuel used for a turbine to reach the necessary temperature.

The result, the company claims, is a stream of nearly pure CO2 that is then piped away and stored underground, or that can be shot into sapped oil reservoirs to recover what oil remains. This latter process is called enhanced oil recovery. In either case, the CO2 is kept out of the atmosphere. The system is based on work done by Rodney Allam, a retired British engineer, and is called the Allam Cycle. The key to Allam’s idea is the recycling of the CO2 in a loop.

A Fossil-Fueled Game Changer

NET Power says it can produce emissions-free power at about $0.06/kWh, which is about the same as the cost from a state of the art, natural gas-fired plant. And lower than most renewable energy. If the demonstration meets expectations, the company intends to move to a full-scale, 300 MW version that could be operational in 2021 at a cost of about $300 million. Such a power plant could supply more 200,000 homes. One expert, John Thompson from the Clean Air Task Force, says the breakthrough plant would be “a game-changer if they achieve 100% of their goals.”

We shall see. The NET Power facility could fail to reach its goal; as carbon capture expert Howard Herzog says, “There are only a million things that can go wrong.” But if successful, the zero emissions plant could be a bridge to a cleaner environment, and could drive more aggressive use of renewable sources. So, what’s not to like about this kind of audacious engineering that aims to solve a problem in a practical way? Failure is a possibility, but success is, too.

 

U.S. Energy Mix Shifts toward Renewables, Natural Gas

— April 20, 2015

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has released figures for scheduled additions and retirements of generation resources in the United States during 2015. According to the EIA, the United States is expected to add 9.8 GW of wind, 6.3 GW of natural gas power plants, and 2.2 GW of solar—all of which make up 91% of the total 20 GW that is expected to come online this year. No coal plants are scheduled to come online this year, and 12.9 GW of coal and 1.98 GW of natural gas will be retired. Not only does this signal a shift in the U.S. energy mix, but it also indicates that there is a great deal of investment in wind, gas, solar, and even nuclear in the U.S. market. That said, 12 GW of this capacity is variable and will require some type of firming or integration. Often, this balancing is executed by gas power plants, which are more flexible than nuclear plants, for example.

Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly
Note: Other renewables include hydroelectric, biomass/wood, and geothermal.

Overall, a healthy amount of capacity is slated to come online in the United States, thanks to market signals such as the Production and Investment Tax Credits. That said, what can we expect to happen in response to the difference between generation and load if the market is not encouraging investment in generation assets?

Shrinking in Texas

I learned at the ERCOT Market Summit that Texas is in a tenuous position with a current reserve margin of 15.7% in 2015 that is expected to shrink to 7.3% by 2024. The reserve margin is a reflection of a grid’s ability to cope with unpredictable but foreseeable events—such as a generator tripping offline or a sudden spike in load. These are not uncommon occurrences, but forecasting them is impossible; hence, the margin.

In Texas, the shrinking reserve margin is a function of power plant retirements and an increase in overall load. In addition, Texas is one of the most deregulated energy markets in the world. This means that it is very unlikely that the state would employ any type of market intervention, such as a mandate or a subsidy, to encourage investment. Instead, it is up the market to adapt in order to embolden the right participant behavior. So far, as evidenced by the shrinking margin, the market is not sending the right signals to encourage investment in power plants.

Markets designers in deregulated markets already looking ahead. Texas has decided against a capacity market and is instead developing reserve products for short-, medium-, and long-term reserves. These products are unlikely to offer the lucrative and consistent returns natural gas power plant developers are looking for, but they should open the door for alternative technologies, including storage.

 

Oil-Gas Price Swings Slow New Energy Investment

— February 18, 2015

As I wrote in this blog in 2012 and in 2013, rising volatility in the oil-to-gas ratio points to a substantial shift in market dynamics for clean energy. Even if short-lived, this shift will have substantial implications for investment in new energy technologies.

In recent years, as the price of oil climbed to over $100 a barrel, the oil-to-gas ratio—which compares the price of a barrel of crude oil to that of a million Btu (mmBtu) of natural gas—spiked to as high as 52:1 in a single month from a relative constant of around 10:1. While this apparent equilibrium had held steady since the mid-1980s, the widening gap between the price of oil and that of gas seemed to represent a new reality, with natural gas prices holding below $3 per mmBtu (Henry Hub).

In the last several months, as oil prices have slid to less than $50 per barrel, that ratio has come crashing back down to Earth. At a current 13:1, the oil-to-gas ratio is once again nearing historic levels—and again reshuffling the deck for a cleantech industry yearning for macroeconomic certainty.

Ratio of Crude Oil to Natural Gas: 1990-2015

Oil-Gas

(Source: Navigant Research)

While the boom in shale oil and gas recovery (among other factors) has ushered in an apparent return to historical equilibrium, experts are divided on what the future holds. Some argue that the recent spike in the oil-to-gas ratio was a short-term anomaly and that forces will continue to act to bring prices back into their long run equilibrium. Others question whether a stable long-term relationship between crude oil prices and natural gas prices even existed in the first place.

While the jury is still out on the putative correlation between oil and gas prices, we can expect continued volatility in the oil-to-gas ratio. This creates a challenging environment for new energy technologies going head-to-head with existing infrastructure.

The Incumbent Edge

Volatility dampens growth in new energy technologies in several ways. First, it cools investors’ appetite for clean energy ventures, due to the potential risk that seemingly profitable investments one day may turn out to be unprofitable due to changing fuel costs. Building natural gas infrastructure may look attractive in 2012 if you’re in the United States, for example, but not so wise when the price of a barrel of crude oil drops by more than 50% in 2014. This is an issue of asset stranding.

Second, it lowers customers’ tolerance for risk. As noted in our recently published report, Combined Heat and Power for Commercial Buildings, the impact of price swings are most acutely felt by consumers looking to hedge with one fuel against the other. When oil prices accelerated past $100, consumers of heating oil and gasoline, for example, began looking to natural gas alternatives. These decisions can be straightforward when price signals are stable, but actual (or even perceived) volatility favors a wait-and-see approach.

The Underminer

Third, it undermines the role of incentives and other mechanisms for stimulating the deployment of new energy technologies. Still more expensive than incumbent technology in most cases, clean energy has enjoyed incentives that put emerging energy technologies on an even playing field with fossil fuels. Fuel price volatility can make it especially challenging to establish reasonable incentive levels for the long term.

While Navigant Research’s forecasts for distributed generation technologies like solar PV (see our Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast report) and energy storage (see our Community, Residential, and Commercial Energy Storage report) in the United States remain strong despite lower energy prices, volatility is likely to mostly benefit the status quo.

 

With Cheap Oil Flowing, U.S. Looks to Next Energy Revolution

— January 26, 2015

With oil prices continuing to languish and Saudi Arabia moving through a royal succession upon the death of King Abdullah, the idea that the “OPEC era is over” has gained credence among government officials and industry analysts. “Did the United States kill OPEC?” asks New York Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter. The answer, he argues, is essentially yes: “The Nixon administration and Congress laid the foundation of an industrial policy that over the span of four decades developed the technologies needed to unleash American shale oil and natural gas onto world markets,” thus loosening OPEC’s grip.

The reality is a bit more complicated than that: OPEC still produces nearly 40% of the world’s oil; the United States produces less than 18%. And oil at $50 a barrel could actually increase OPEC’s power as producers of unconventional reserves, which are more costly to produce, are driven from the market. Like the coal industry, OPEC is not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Big Opportunity

The shale revolution does, however, offer some other welcome knock-on effects, if policymakers are alert and astute enough to take advantage of them.  “Cheaper oil and gas will contribute an estimated $2,000 per American household this year, and $74 billion to state and federal governments coffers,” note Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, a San Francisco-based energy and climate think tank. The Breakthrough Institute has done extensive research on the role of public-private partnerships in the development of the seismic and drilling technology advances that underlie the shale revolution. Should the government choose to take advantage of it, this windfall could fund a multi-decade R&D program for renewable energy similar to the one that led to the shale boom.

“We can afford to spend a tiny fraction of the benefits of the bounty that cheap oil and gas have brought so that our children and grandchildren can similarly benefit from cheap and clean energy in the future,” declare Nordhaus and Shellenberger.

The Gas Tax Solution

That’s an inspiring concept. The execution is likely to be messy, though. Any such spending would probably need congressional support, or at least consent – and the U.S. Senate only last week finally reached agreement that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” That’s a long way from dedicating billions to develop alternative energy sources.

One suggestion put forth by clean energy activists is an increase in the U.S. gas tax. A few cents extra per gallon (on gas that’s about half the price it was a year ago) could help fund a massive crash program to develop inexpensive, clean energy technology (not to mention shore up the failing U.S. Highway Trust Fund).

But raising the gas tax is like the National Popular Vote – a terrific idea that’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. Even though polls consistently indicate that consumers are willing to spend slightly more for the energy they consume in order to limit climate change, actually slapping extra taxes on motorists at the pump is unlikely to be a winning move in Washington – which explains why President Obama left it out of his call for a “bipartisan infrastructure plan” in his State of the Union address.

 

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