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Turns Out, NET Power Hasn’t Delivered Net Power

It’s all in the fine print.

A NET Power facility.
Heatmap Illustration/NET Power

NET Power’s power plants are an oil exec’s fantasy, an environmentalist’s nightmare, and an energy expert’s object of fascination. The company builds natural gas-burning power plants that, due to the inherent design of the system, don’t release carbon dioxide or other health-harming pollutants. If the tech can scale, it could be a key contender to complement solar and wind energy on the grid, with the ability to dispatch carbon-free power when it’s needed and run for as long as necessary, unconstrained by the weather.

The company is especially well-positioned now that the Environmental Protection Agency has finalized emissions standards for new natural gas plants that require them to reduce their emissions by 90% by 2032 — part of what landed NET Power a spot on our list of 10 make-or-break new energy projects in the U.S. In checking in on how things were going at the company, however, we learned NET Power hadn’t made quite as much progress as we thought.

NET Power’s leadership has said its process is so efficient that when built at scale, it will produce cheaper power than a conventional natural gas plant. Today’s plants combust methane with air to heat up water and produce steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity. NET Power’s system instead combusts methane with pure oxygen, producing extremely hot CO2 that can drive a specially designed turbine. By replacing air, which is about 78% nitrogen, with oxygen, the CO2 produced is very pure. The system recovers most of the gas and uses it to generate more electricity, but the small amount that is not recovered is easier (and cheaper) to capture and store than the mix of gases that comes out of a typical power plant.

The company, whose backers include Occidental Petroleum, Constellation Energy, and Baker Hughes, broke ground on a demonstration project in La Porte, Texas in 2016, and began testing the equipment in 2018. In November 2021, it made waves among clean energy wonks when it announced a major milestone: The plant had successfully “synchronized” with the Texas grid, delivering enough electricity to power about 1,000 homes.

“This is a Wright-brothers-first-flight kind of breakthrough for energy,” NET Power’s then-CEO Ron DeGregorio said at the time. “Zero-emission, low-cost electricity delivered to the grid from natural gas-fueled technology.”

But the breakthrough wasn’t exactly what it seemed. In reports filed to the Securities and Exchange Commission as recently as last month, under a section titled “Risk Factors,” the company noted that its La Porte demonstration plant has “not yet overcome all power loads to provide net positive power delivery to the commercial grid during its operation.”

In other words, despite having successfully delivered power to the Texas grid, NET Power’s plant did not — and still hasn’t — generated more power than it consumes. Here is the rest of the explanation from the filing:

Our Demonstration Plant successfully generated electric power while synchronized to the grid, but it has not yet overcome all facility auxiliary power loads (pumps, compressors, etc.) to provide net positive power delivery to the commercial grid during its operation. If initial commercial power plants are unable to efficiently provide net power output to the commercial grid using the NET Power Cycle, this could harm our business, results of operation and reputation.

The company told me this was all according to plan. “NET Power’s La Porte Demonstration Facility was designed and built for one goal — to prove the technical viability of the NET Power Cycle, which it did,” NET Power said in an emailed statement. “Given its small scale” — just 25 megawatts — “and the design considerations required for a flexible test facility, La Porte was not intended to provide net positive power to the grid.” It added that Project Permian, the company’s first utility-scale project, “is intended to generate and deliver net positive power,” and is expected to be operational in late 2027, or early 2028.

Though NET Power never said anything to the contrary, several energy experts I reached out to said this was news to them. “It’s sort of surprising that they didn’t report it before, because obviously that would have been known at the time,” Sara Hastings-Simon, a physicist who researches the energy transition at the University of Calgary. The excitement around NET Power is rooted in its potential to be cheaper than a typical carbon capture project, which adds a big cost to power generation. “The challenge is now, it’s really hard to know until it gets there whether there is truth to that statement or not,” said Hastings-Simon.

Chris Bataille, a research fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy who sees a lot of promise in the company’s technology, said he saw this as a red flag. “I don’t think it sinks it,” he told me. “I don’t think suddenly it has crashed and burned. But it does say that they’re less advanced.”

But Joshua Rhodes, an energy systems researcher at the University of Texas, was unfazed when I asked whether it mattered that the company still hadn’t passed this milestone after nearly three years. “I’m sure they would have liked to pass it by now and I don’t know if there are any factors that are hindering them,” he said in an email. “That said, it is a new technology that, if it can be shown to work, could be huge.”

Green
Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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