Still Not Dead - Petra Nova's New Lease on Life a Critical Test for Carbon-Capture Technology

The lack of successful projects has long been a thorn in the side of the carbon-capture industry, with a few high-profile cases falling short of expectations for a variety of economic and technological reasons. When looking for a prime example of how a highly touted (and taxpayer-supported) project can still fall short, the Petra Nova facility southwest of Houston, which completed its three-year demonstration period shortly before being shut in 2020, often comes to mind. But now it’s just a few months away from getting another shot, courtesy of its new owner and recovering oil prices. In today’s RBN blog, we look at the impending restart of the Petra Nova project, how falling oil prices overshadowed its technical successes, and its importance to the carbon-capture industry.

Although carbon-capture projects have gained significantly more attention in recent years as environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns have risen in prominence and governments have begun to focus on ways to decarbonize — including passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — the industry itself has significant room for growth. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) long-term plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 rests heavily on advances in clean-energy technology, a shift away from fossil fuels, and the continued electrification of transportation, but about 70% of planned reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions come from a category it calls Fossil Fuels and Processes, which includes the CO2 emitted in power generation. Whether such goals are plausible is a source of much debate. There’s no doubt, though, that government policies, including those mentioned above, will funnel tremendous resources into advancing carbon-capture technologies.

As we discussed in Way Down in the Hole, Part 4, the costs of carbon capture can vary tremendously, and this is especially true of projects that fall into the power-generation category. Generally speaking, facilities emitting CO2 can be put into two buckets: high-purity and low-purity. For the most part, high-purity sources include processes where the CO2 is highly concentrated in the exhaust stream, making it much easier to separate and capture (such as ethanol and ammonia production or natural gas processing). In low-purity sources, the CO2 is generally a product of combustion — such as a coal- or gas-fired power plant — or commingled with other emissions, making them harder (and more expensive) to separate and capture. That’s where Petra Nova — the first large-scale U.S. project to capture emissions from coal-fired power generation — came into play.

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