NET Power CEO Credits Obama Stimulus, Says It Should Have Been Permanent

NET Power CEO Credits Obama Stimulus, Says It Should Have Been Permanent

Bill Brown, chief executive officer of NET Power LLC. Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher/BloombergAaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg

It’s a new kind of power plant that promises zero emissions at no increased cost, and its CEO says it might not have happened were it not for The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“We started out thinking about the Recovery Act,” said NET Power CEO Bill Brown. “The Recovery Act from the Obama Administration is what inspired us. We saw this line item in there for clean coal, and we started thinking we would solve the coal problem.”

Nine years later the prototype NET Power plant is operating in La Porte, Texas, with both the energy industry and the climate-change community watching closely to see if it performs as hoped.

“If this plant works,” said S. Julio Friedman, a Columbia University expert on carbon capture, “nobody builds combined-cycle gas plants anymore. They build these things.”

Combined-cycle gas plants spin one turbine with a blazing mix of air and gas and a second turbine with steam made from the heat. Brown’s NET Power plant dispenses with the inefficient process of heating water for steam. Instead it captures the super heated CO2 produced from combustion and returns it under pressure to the combustion chamber, along with pure oxygen.

The NET Power plant produces fresh water as a byproduct as well as bottled CO2 for use in products or in enhanced oil recovery.

“That’s new on the earth,” Friedman said, “and we hope these guys succeed because it means you can actually decarbonize the gas power sector for real and for cheap.”

But Brown and his partners set out to decarbonize coal, a goal set in the Obama Stimulus. They took their idea to Babcock and Wilcox, the energy-services company, who studied it for three months and determined that, in theory, it should work. Babcock and Wilcox steered them from coal to natural gas and urged them to collaborate with Toshiba, the company with the most experience working with systems under high pressure.

Toshiba built the turbine at the heart of the NET Power demonstration plant. Investments came from Exelon and Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, which combined this year with McDermott International.

NET Power was able to attract corporate support because they could demonstrate a clear pathway for the new plant to make money, Brown said—a lot of money.

“We had to have a line of sight on a billion dollars of revenue in 5 to 10 years,” Brown said at a panel last month hosted by the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago. “And because we had a line of sight on a billion dollars of revenue in 5 to 10 years, you can get into the C suite of any corporation on earth. That’s what gets you over the hump. That’s what allows you to get access to people. That’s what allows you to inspire people. And all you need is one CEO that wants to fund that.”

But long before that stage, he said, came the hurdle of getting the idea off the ground. That’s where the Obama Stimulus helped, and acc0rding to Brown, a permanent program modeled on the Obama Stimulus could help more startups get to launch.

“I think the biggest hurdle that we are facing (with energy startups) is getting project #1 built. And getting people over that hurdle for project #1 is hard. That’s where I think the Recovery Act was helpful. What you see is that a lot of those projects in the Recovery Act never ended up completing. And what would have been better is if they made that fund evergreen, so that it stayed there, and implicitly so that that fund took some level of equity investment into the things they funded for successes to fund back into that fund. I think that would change a lot.”

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