By Ryan Holeywell
HOUSTON — A new power plant in West Texas that could transform coal into cleaner-burning natural gas is poised to break ground later this year, an executive in charge of the project said at a conference in Houston Wednesday.
The project, located on a 600-acre site in Odessa, uses coal as a feedstock for a 400 megawatt power plant. But instead of burning it, the plant uses a chemical process to first strip it of carbon, sulfur and mercury.
The result, project leaders say, is a hydrocarbon that can fuel the power plan but burns even cleaner than natural gas — even though it was derived from coal. The extra carbon dioxide that gets stripped away is sold to production company Whiting Petroleum, which can pump in underground through a process known as enhanced oil recovery that helps coax more hydrocarbons from the earth.
“We’re not actually burning coal; we’re unlocking hydrocarbons,” said Jason Crew, CEO of Summit Power, the Seattle-based company behind the undertaking dubbed the Texas Clean Energy Project.
The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded the project $450 million in federal grants. Even though the U.S. is moving to phase-out coal in favor of natural gas-fired plants and alternative energy sources, coal is still poised to be a vital source of energy for the U.S. and other countries for years to come, said Jason Lewis, federal project manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.
But Lewis said development of the method, known as carbon capture and storage, faces headwinds. Questions remain about the economics of carbon capture projects, among other factors.
But the feds hope that by investing in the Odessa project, they’ll be able to learn more about both the technology and finances of the operation and eventually have a model that can be used elsewhere, allowing coal to be used more cleanly as other fuel sources are developed.
“Carbon dioxide emissions will go up unless we do something now,” Lewis said.
The Odessa project is one of three carbon-capture projects in Texas.
The Petra Nova project, a joint venture involving NRG Energy Inc., is under construction in Fort Bend County. Technology added to an existing power plant is designed to capture carbon before it’s emitted into the atmosphere.
Air Products and Chemicals is capturing carbon from a hydrogen production facility in Port Arthur. All three projects have received federal support.
The technology has garnered mixed reaction from the environmental community.
While the Natural Resources Defense Council says that carbon capture is one of several solutions that could help reduce carbon pollution from power plants, Sierra Club officials say they prefer focusing resources on the development of wind and solar power generation.