The Drivers and Status of the Texas Clean Energy Project

By Laura Miller
Director of Projects, Texas, Summit Power Group, LLC

In a single week this past June, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-to-2 to affirm the right of  the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from large industrial sources; four former EPA chiefs, all appointed by Republican presidents, testified before a Senate subcommittee that man’s contribution to climate change is a matter of national security; and a coalition of business leaders, including three former U.S. Treasury secretaries, issued a report detailing economic drivers for combating climate change.1 These are just the latest examples of a growing and increasingly bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that something can and must be done to reduce the amount of manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

The site of the Texas Clean Energy Project (photo courtesy of Jason Lewis, U.S. DOE, National Energy Technology Lab)

The site of the Texas Clean Energy Project (photo courtesy of Jason Lewis, U.S. DOE, National Energy Technology Lab)

The Carbon Capture Challenge

Despite this growing consensus, making carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) a standard feature of the U.S. power plant fleet—the largest source of America’s greenhouse gases—has proven to be easier said than done. According to a 2012 report by the Congressional Budget Office:

Since 2005, lawmakers have provided the Department of Energy (DOE) with about $6.9 billion to further develop CCS [carbon capture and storage] technology, demonstrate its commercial feasibility, and reduce the cost of electricity generated by CCS-equipped plants. But unless DOE’s funding is substantially increased or other policies are adopted to encourage utilities to invest in CCS, federal support is likely to play only a minor role in the deployment of the technology.2

Although the U.S. DOE announced a new $8B loan program last December for advanced fossil energy projects that capture or reduce carbon,3 no new grant monies for such projects are expected to be approved by Congress for the foreseeable future. Likewise, there is currently not an apparent (or at least sufficient) political will to put a price on carbon emissions that would incentivize carbon storage on a major scale.

One potentially cost-neutral approach, which West Virginia’s  Sen. Jay Rockefeller introduced recently as Senate Bill 2288, was developed by the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative (NEORI)—a coalition of major companies, environmentalists, labor unions, and state officials; Summit Power Group (Summit) was also a participant. NEORI found that an expansion of current federal Section 45Q production tax credits for projects that capture CO2 for use in enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR) could generate over nine billion barrels of oil over 40 years in the U.S., quadrupling CO2-EOR production and displacing U.S. oil imports, all while preventing the release of four billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. The group also found that the short-term cost of expanding the 45Q program today would be more than covered by the revenue generated from the increased corporate income taxes and royalties paid on the oil produced from CO2 injections.4

Summit’s quest to build the most ambitious, pre-combustion, carbon-capture power plant in the world serves as an effective case study for a nascent industry where the science and the technology are fully proven, but the execution remains challenging for mostly unforeseen reasons: the global economic recession of 2008, a plunge in U.S. natural gas prices, sharply increased oil and gas supplies, and the lack of broad Congressional action to deal with the issue of CO2.

Summit is a power plant development company, founded 20 years ago by Donald Hodel, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, and Earl Gjelde, former COO of the U.S. Department of Energy. To date, the company has successfully developed over 9000 MW of natural gas, wind, and solar projects, but never any based on coal. In 2006, with national opposition to old-technology coal plants (i.e., subcritical plants not employing the best available technologies and not contemplating any future carbon capture) growing dramatically nationwide, Hodel and Gjelde concluded that for coal to have a future in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, it was time to build a world-class clean, low-carbon, coal-based power project.

Summit’s vision became what is today a fully permitted 400-MW coal gasification project with 90% carbon capture near Odessa, Texas, called the Texas Clean Energy Project.

U.S. Coal Gasification Is Not New

The science behind low-carbon emissions, coal-based power was already proven in the U.S. by 2006: Tampa Electric’s Polk Power Station in Florida and the Wabash River Coal Gasification Repowering Project in Indiana were up and running, both built in the mid-1990s with enormous financial support from the U.S. DOE. They demonstrated that electricity from coal gasification could be both efficient and offer significantly lower emissions—essentially vaporizing the coal into a gaseous state that permitted its impurities to be stripped out, rather than burning the coal and trying to capture the pollutants as they were blown through a smokestack.

Industrial-scale carbon capture and utilization was also already commercially proven in the U.S.: In 2000, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant in North Dakota began capturing 50% of the CO2 off its coal-feedstock synthetic natural gas manufacturing plant and piping it north to Canada for geological storage via CO2-EOR. The added revenue stream was such a boon to the coal-to-SNG project that its owners repaid the U.S. DOE $1 billion that it had spent taking over the project in 1986 when natural gas prices plummeted and the original owners bailed on the project.5

Hodel and Gjelde saw an opportunity to take these two proven technologies (i.e., coal gasification for electricity and CO2-EOR) and combine them, for the first time, to build a new generation of coal-based power plants. Despite the fact that burned coal was still powering half of America’s homes and businesses in 2006,6 the reality was an industry under siege from environmentalists, politicians, and consumers who were tired of the existing, high-emissions, plants and new-construction proposals that were not employing the very latest and best technology. As an example, TXU’s Big Brown, a 1150-MW plant in East Texas, had no sulfur-dioxide (SO2) scrubbers in 2006 and still doesn’t today—making it the No. 4 biggest SO2 producer of 449 coal plants nationwide7, with 62,494 tons emitted in 2013. No. 3 is another old TXU plant, Martin Lake, just 100 miles down the road. The EPA began regulating SO2 emissions in 1971—the same year Big Brown came online.

After her tenure in public office, Laura Miller has continued to push for the deployment of clean coal technologies globally.

After her tenure in public office, Laura Miller has continued to push for the deployment of clean coal technologies globally.

I was one of those unhappy politicians. As mayor of Dallas in 2006, I was shocked to learn that 18 new, pulverized coal plants were being proposed for our state—11 of them by Dallas-based TXU, which already owned three of the state’s largest, oldest, and highest-emission coal plants. With help from then-Houston mayor Bill White, we created a coalition of cities, counties, and school districts to fight TXU’s plans, which the EPA said did not include using the most technologically advanced pollution control equipment then available. Our widely publicized statewide challenge eventually led to a leveraged buyout of the company and a compromise by the new owners, forged by national environmental groups, to build only three of the 11 plants, including a two-unit, 1600-MW project northwest of Houston called Oak Grove.

During our yearlong battle, I had pressed TXU aggressively to consider doing gasification; when company officials insisted in public debate forums that gasification technology wasn’t available on a reliable, commercial scale, I traveled to Florida to tour the Tampa project so I could refute the claim. And when I repeatedly brought up doing carbon capture, TXU said it was happy to consider making the new plants “carbon capture ready”—which sounded promising at the time, but quickly proved to be an often-used excuse for doing nothing. As David Hawkins with the Natural Resources Defense Council once famously put it in a 2007 appearance before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources: “It could mean almost anything, including according to some industry representatives, a plant that simply leaves physical space for an unidentified black box. If that makes a power plant ‘capture-ready,’ Mr. Chairman, then my driveway is ‘Ferrari-ready’.” 8

I wasn’t against coal. I was against using coal if it wasn’t in the cleanest manner possible. When I left public office in 2007, I was asked by several environmental groups if I would go around the country teaching other mayors how to fight dirty coal plants. My response was that it would take forever, only defeat one project at a time, and be an uphill battle in states like Texas (where citizens, not project developers, had the burden in permit hearings to prove that a project wasn’t using the best technology available). Why not build the cleanest plant in the world, thus raising the bar forever on the standard for using coal? The Clean Air Task Force promptly introduced me to Summit Power Group.

Summit executive Eric Redman, now our company president and CEO, was passionate about our project for the same reason I was—we want our industry to capture and sequester carbon. Hodel and Gjelde had a somewhat different but related motivation: Both of them wanted to help assure the clean, responsible, publicly accepted future use of America’s 300-year supply of coal and other hydrocarbons9—one of our country’s most stable and plentiful resources—in part so that America can finally fulfill its long-held goal of energy independence and security. These overlapping approaches to the project have resulted in one of TCEP’s greatest strengths—solid bipartisan support on the federal, state, and local levels in both Texas and Washington.

While Summit was focused on pre-combustion carbon capture, other forward-looking power companies were determined to capture carbon off existing coal fleets—a far more difficult task. Most commendably, American Electric Power (AEP) had made it a goal as early as 2003 to capture carbon off its existing 1300-MW Mountaineer Power Plant, commissioned in 1980 in West Virginia. With assistance from U.S. DOE, EPRI, and Alstom, AEP proved in a pilot program (which it conceived in 2003 but took until 2009 to achieve) that CO2 could be captured off an emissions slipstream and stored underground. Despite a $334M award from DOE to take the pilot program to commercial scale and a 90% capture rate, AEPabandoned the project in 2011 after the U.S. Senate failed to pass a House bill that established a federal cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, and regulatory authorities in West Virginia were unwilling to pass on Mountaineer’s CO2 capture costs to ratepayers.

“[A]t this time it doesn’t make economic sense to continue work on the commercial-scale CCS project beyond the current engineering phase,” said Michael G. Morris, AEP chairman and chief executive, in a statement at the time. “It is impossible to gain regulatory approval to recover our share of the costs for validating and deploying the technology without federal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions already in place.”10

Although Mountaineer’s demise has been seen as a major setback for post-combustion capture in the U.S., NRG announced in July 2014 that it would start construction on a $1B tower that would capture 40% of the CO2 from one of four coal units at its existing, 2475-MW W.A. Parish power plant near Houston. The 1.6 million tons per year of captured CO2 will be used for CO2-EOR in a field NRG partly owns 80 miles away. U.S. DOE is contributing $167M of the cost.

Tenaska was also a major first mover in developing CCUS, proposing two new-build projects: Trailblazer in Texas, a supercritical pulverized coal project with 85 to 90% carbon capture, and Taylorville in Illinois, a gasification project with 65% carbon capture. In 2013, Tenaska abandoned both, citing similar reasons as AEP, plus increasing supplies and lower costs of natural gas and renewable energy.

Today, only one major, new coal-based CCUS power project is under construction in the U.S.: the Kemper County energy facility, a 582-MW IGCC project with 65% carbon capture—a rate that will result in the plant having the same carbon emissions profile as a highly efficient natural gas-fired power plant. Jointly funded by Mississippi Power and Southern Company, with a $270M award from the U.S. DOE, Kemper has suffered cost overruns and schedule delays, but is set to come online near Meridian, Mississippi, by the end of 2014, which would make it the U.S.’s first successful coal-based CCUS power project and a long-awaited milestone for the industry.

The Texas Clean Energy Project

The second new-build U.S. carbon capture power project slated for construction is Summit’s Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP).

Like Kemper, TCEP has also received federal incentives—a $450M award from Round 3 of U.S. DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative (CCPI) program in 2009–2010, and two subsequent federal tax credit awards from the IRS under Section 48A of the Internal Revenue Code. With TCEP’s projected cost at about $2.5B, the federal assistance covers just part of total construction costs, which will be borne primarily by private investors and bank lenders, but is nevertheless essential to this type of large-scale, first-of-a-kind project (first-of-its-kind because unlike Kemper, TCEP will also produce urea fertilizer, plus capture a much higher percentage of its CO2). In the case of TCEP, the federal incentives allow it to sell all of its products, including power, at market prices, which is critical in Texas since the electricity market is no longer regulated by the Public Utility Commission and ratepayers are not responsible for cost overruns.

So why—when utilities and other power providers have scrapped their CCUS projects in recent years—is TCEP still moving forward?

One fortuitous factor is TCEP’s design: It is a polygeneration plant—a project that generates multiple products, instead of just electricity—resulting in multiple revenue streams (see Figure 1). About 25% of TCEP’s revenue will be generated by 195 MW of electricity sales; about 55% of revenue will come from the 760,000 tons/year of urea; about 20% of revenue will come from the sales of CO2 for CO2-EOR.

Figure 1. Summary flow chart for the Texas Clean Energy Project  Note: Other by-products represent ~3% of total revenue and have been eliminated via rounding; tpy = tons/year

Figure 1. Summary flow chart for the Texas Clean Energy Project
Note: Other by-products represent ~3% of total revenue and have been eliminated via rounding; tpy = tons/year

This unusual configuration came about when Summit decided early on to employ Siemens gasification technology to convert Powder River Basin (PRB) coal into clean, high-hydrogen, low-carbonsyngas. Because of the gasifier’s size, this resulted in more syngas being produced than would be needed to operate the Siemens combustion turbine to produce electricity. After reviewing market forecasts for various products—synthesized gasoline and diesel fuel, ammonia, methanol, synthetic natural gas—urea fertilizer was chosen for its low commodity price risk and ability to displace imports (the U.S. currently imports 70% of its urea). TCEP will sell all of its urea to Minnesota-based CHS, Inc., which sells crop nutrients, both wholesale and retail, to thousands of farmers for millions of acres across North America.

Other TCEP products include sulfuric acid, which will be manufactured onsite from the sulfur captured from the coal, which is also currently done by Tampa Electric’s Polk Power Station. TCEP’s sulfuric acid will be marketed by Houston-based Shrieve Chemical Company to its mining, manufacturing, and agricultural customers.

Finally, just as Kemper will do, TCEP will take virtually all of its captured CO2, compress it onsite, and sell it to area oil producers for CO2-EOR. In TCEP’s case, TCEP will transport its 1.8 million standard tons per year of compressed CO2 for less than one mile to connect with the existing Kinder Morgan system of dedicated CO2 pipelines, which will deliver it to TCEP customers Whiting Oil and two other Permian Basin producers.

By December 2011, TCEP had achieved virtually all of its project milestones, including: 1) issuance of all required permits, including its Texas air permit and its Record of Decision (ROD) at the end of U.S. DOE’s National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process; 2) a completed front end engineering and design (FEED) study; 3) signed engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contracts and operations and maintenance (O&M) contracts with three EPC contractors; 4) signed off-take agreements for all major commercial products; and 5) commitments of local and state financial incentives for locating the project in West Texas.

In September 2012, the project forged an important alliance with two of the largest companies in China: the Export-Import Bank of China (Chexim), which committed to loan TCEP all of its required debt financing of more than $1.6 billion, and Sinopec Engineering Group (SEG), a subsidiary of petrochemical giant Sinopec Corporation, which joined the project’s EPC team.

In July 2013, with TCEP’s project debt and equity funding committed, an update of project costs came in considerably higher than had been anticipated by Summit and its investors, because of a sharp increase in construction costs in West Texas. This in turn was due to an increasingly high demand for skilled labor in the midst of a statewide oil and gas boom. With no ceiling on labor costs—and big labor contingencies added to the new cost estimates from all three contractors—the project was unable to complete its financing by its goal of December 2013.

Undeterred, and with the support of DOE and state and local officials in West Texas, Summit is now simplifying its EPC structure by bringing in a lead contractor that has successfully built similar plants, China Huanqiu Contracting & Engineering Corporation (HQC), and making improvements to its project design to reduce costs and the amount of needed feedstock (and also residual emissions). In July 2014, Summit and HQC launched a FEED study update that is expected to conclude with new, signed EPC contracts and a financial closing by about 30 April 2015, with groundbreaking shortly thereafter.

HQC and Summit began the FEED update work during the
sixth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing. In conjunction with that meeting’s U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group CCUS initiative, Summit’s TCEP was also selected by the U.S. DOE to enter a working partnership arrangement with Huaneng’s Clean Energy Research Institute (CERI) and that company’s GreenGen project—which is China’s cleanest fossil fuel power plant.

“TCEP is a key part of the U.S. CCUS portfolio, and DOE has invested $450 million into the project,” stated the U.S. DOE’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Fossil Energy, Christopher Smith, in a 3 July 2014 letter to China’s National Energy Administration Deputy Administrator Zhang Yuqing distributed in Beijing that week. “…Under the counter-facing project arrangement, Summit Power and Huaneng will help each other in the planning and operation of TCEP and Phase 2 of GreenGen by sharing non-proprietary information and results from the respective projects. Huaneng will also assist Summit Power in the commissioning of the TCEP plant.”11

Lessons Learned

We do not envision TCEP as a unique demonstration project, but rather the first full-scale commercial gasification plant in a new carbon capture business sector that Summit intends to pursue. This vision is shared by others in the industry, most especially U.S. DOE—without which none of the CCUS projects currently under construction, or in development, would be alive today. The prize for the entire energy sector is potentially enormous.

Hopefully, the challenges currently being experienced by projects like TCEP and the Kemper County energy facility will be viewed as necessary growing pains in the effort to replace the current low-efficiency, unabated fleet of coal-fired power generation. Through employing improved technologies this fleet could continue to provide reliable electricity while avoiding the release of 1.73 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere as was the case in 2010.12

One thing, though, is certain: Unless Congress approves additional financial incentives to build these innovative projects, this will be remembered as a decade that produced only a handful of commercial-scale carbon capture power projects in America—much like the 1990s are remembered for only two coal gasification projects, Tampa and Wabash. Perhaps the Rockefeller/NEORI proposal—which promises double rewards by both capturing CO2 and using it to bring up oil—can be the winning formula that quickly deploys a new and nimble fleet of game-changing CCUS facilities.

If the U.S. turns its back on coal entirely, the rest of the world will not. So for coal to remain relevant to a low-carbon U.S. power industry—and for worldwide carbon emissions from coal to be tamed—it is vital that TCEP and other coal-based CCUS projects succeed and stand as beacons, both here and abroad.

As in any industry, it’s simply a matter of getting the first movers up and operating.

 

REFERENCES

  1. The Risky Business Project. (2014, June). Risky business: The economic risks of climate change to the United States, riskybusiness.org/uploads/files/RiskyBusiness_PrintedReport_FINAL_WEB_OPTIMIZED.pdf
  2. Congressional Budget Office, Congress of the United States. (2012, June). Federal efforts to reduce the cost of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43357-06-28CarbonCapture.pdf
  3. U.S. Department of Energy. (2014, 12 December). Loan guar-antee solicitation announcement, energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/03/f14/Fossil-Solicitation-FINAL.pdf
  4. National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative. (2014). Carbon dioxide enhanced oil recovery: A critical domestic energy, economic, and environmental opportunity. Available at: neori.org/publications/neori-report/
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory. (2014). SNG from coal: Process & commercialization, www.netl.doe.gov/research/coal/energy-systems/gasification/gasifipedia/great-plains
  6. U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2013, 12 December). Electric power annual: Table 4.1. Count of electric power industry power plants, by sector, by predominant energy sources within plant, 2002 through 2012; Table 3.1.A. Net generation by energy source: Total (all sectors), 2002-2012, Electric power annual, www.eia.gov/electricity/annual
  7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2014, 17 June). Emissions tracking highlights. Table of emissions, emission rates, heat input: 2012 v. 2013, www.epa.gov/airmarkets/quarterlytracking.html
  8. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate. (2007, 16 April). Hearing on S. 731 and S. 962: Carbon capture and sequestration (testimony of David G. Hawkins, Climate Center, NRDC), www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=d281a96a-5466-4f0c-b74c-d696811e67ee
  9. National Mining Association. (2008). U.S. coal reserves by state and mine type, www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/Reference_Docs/coal_reserves_NMA.pdf
  10. American Electric Power. (2011, 3 July). AEP places carbon capture commercialization on hold, citing uncertain status of climate policy, weak economy, www.aep.com/newsroom/newsreleases/?id=1704
  11. Smith, C.A. (2014, 14 July). Letter from the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Fossil Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, to Zhang Yuqing, Deputy Administrator, National Energy Administration, People’s Republic of China. Unpublished.
  12. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Clean energy, www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/refs.html

 

The author can be reached at lmiller@summitpower.com

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.

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