AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump wants America to use more coal - especially clean coal, he says. There is, in fact, a way to capture one of coal's worst pollutants, carbon dioxide, before it enters the atmosphere and warms it up. What's called carbon capture has been slow to catch on for coal plants, but engineers are adapting the technology for coal's biggest competitor, natural gas. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on a first-of-its-kind experiment in Houston, Texas.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Bill Brown is a big guy in steel-toed boots and a hardhat with a big idea.
BILL BROWN: We're doing something that no one else has ever thought of before.
JOYCE: It's a new kind of power, he says, that burns fossil fuels without dumping any carbon dioxide into the air. Brown had a hard time convincing people to give his company, 8 Rivers, money to build it.
BROWN: They thought we were nuts. I mean, it's funny. The look that comes across their face at that moment is like - this guy is deluded.
JOYCE: It didn't help that this guy is a lawyer and former investment banker, not an engineer - nor, he says, was the fact that no one has ever built such a thing.
BROWN: Let's face it. We'll be the first technology that takes fossil fuels and cleans up the carbon at no extra cost.
JOYCE: People have promised that kind of thing for decades, but failed to deliver.
BROWN: That's the way the world has been for a long, long time.
JOYCE: But the project called NET Power did get $140 million to build this demonstration plant to try to prove it can be done.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)
JOYCE: Right now, it's a giant LEGO set of girders and storage tanks and pipes rising up from the red Texas dirt. The power company Exelon is a partner. So is Toshiba. Toshiba's contribution is the turbine. Most turbines make electricity when you force steam through them, but this turbine doesn't use steam. The plant burns natural gas to make high-pressure carbon dioxide and uses that CO2 to drive the turbine. The turbine sits atop a three-story scaffolding like the topper on a wedding cake. NET Power's Walker Dimmig leads me up to see it.
WALKER DIMMIG: See it?
JOYCE: That's the size of a car.
DIMMIG: It's like a - it's like a Suburban - hundred megawatts out of a Suburban.
JOYCE: That's enough to power tens of thousands of homes. The big deal here is that almost all of the CO2 in the plant gets routed back to the turbine and re-used. It doesn't go up into the atmosphere. Brown says a lot of environmentalists want fossil fuels to disappear. He argues his project shows they can be climate-friendly.
BROWN: Anybody who says keep it in the ground is asking the wrong question. The question is - are we putting CO2 into the atmosphere? And if the answer is no, then that should be sufficient.
JOYCE: The federal government has spent billions of dollars on research to make carbon capture work with coal to keep the coal industry alive. The irony here is that Brown has chosen to run his plant by burning natural gas, not coal. Brown says it's cheaper and cleaner, and there's lots of it. Some environmentalists are getting excited by this technology. They say it makes sense because fossil fuels aren't going to disappear soon. George Peridas is an engineer at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
GEORGE PERIDAS: From our point of view, we're talking about climate protection from the standpoint of the fossil fuel producers. I think they are looking at the bottom line. They're looking at survival. They're looking at creating new jobs.
JOYCE: But to make carbon capture work, investors have to believe in it. Jonathan Levy is an energy investment analyst at Vision Ridge Partners. He says right now renewable energy is growing faster than any other source.
JONATHAN LEVY: With the cost of wind and solar where they are and continuing to decline, it's hard to see why you would go all-in on a big fossil project that is more expensive than the other technologies.
JOYCE: Bill Brown at NET Power says he thinks his technology using natural gas can compete with renewables or anyone else. He acknowledges that many in the carbon capture business have promised that and failed. He says he should have his answer once NET Power starts up later this year. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF VALERIE JUNE SONG, "WORKIN' WOMAN BLUES")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.