Director's Corner

Release Date: April 09, 2015

Leading Energy Innovation to Overcome Climate Change

Global climate change is the greatest environmental threat of our time, and mitigating this threat while providing affordable, reliable, and secure energy presents a formidable challenge. But this challenge is also an opportunity for the United States to assert its innovative leadership in developing technologies that enable the continued economic prosperity of developed nations and nurture progress in developing nations, all while protecting the environment.

Climate Change
© Vasiliy Koval – Fotolia
As the Energy Department's fossil energy laboratory, NETL is leading innovation to mitigate the threat of global climate change.

As the only U.S. Department of Energy national lab dedicated to fossil energy research, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has been on the leading edge of finding solutions to the climate change challenge, and we’re attacking it from several angles. Across the lab, we’re developing technologies that will enable our continued, affordable use of coal for power generation without harmful emissions. Our research on advanced energy systems is investigating how technological progress in coal gasification and combustion, turbines, and solid oxide fuel cells can improve the efficiency of power plants so they can produce more energy on less fuel, while generating less carbon dioxide (CO2). 

At the same time, our carbon-capture work is finding solutions to lower the cost and reduce the energy penalty associated with capturing and compressing CO2, and our carbon-storage research is working to lower the cost, assess risks, and improve long-term viability for widespread deployment of storing CO2 in geological formations.

Currently, NETL leads two very important partnerships related to carbon capture and storage (CCS): the Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative (CCSI) and the National Risk Assessment Partnership (NRAP). Both bring together the best minds from across the Energy Department’s national labs, as well as collaborators in industry, academia, and other government organizations. CCSI is developing and deploying an advanced set of computational tools geared toward accelerating the commercialization of carbon capture technologies. Many of these tools are already licensed to industry. On the carbon storage side, NRAP is developing the tools and generating the science base needed to quantify and assess potential risks associated with various geologic storage sites, while providing financiers and regulators information they need to more confidently invest in and approve full-scale CCS projects.

In addition, NETL researchers are developing innovative ways to identify and control fugitive methane emissions associated with unconventional gas production to help mitigate the climate impacts of this greenhouse gas. Natural gas is our cleanest burning fossil fuel, and the recent shale gas boom has provided an abundance of this versatile resource. However, producing, processing, and transmitting natural gas all contribute to methane emissions. That’s why NETL researchers are innovating ways to improve technologies throughout the natural gas value chain. Our researchers are investigating external leak detection and monitoring strategies to identify and measure methane leaks. We’re advancing pipeline inspection and repair methods to reduce the need to evacuate gas from the pipe. Within the pipeline, we’re developing smart sensors that will provide a continual leak detection capability.  Our research is also improving the performance of reciprocating compressors, which are critical for gas transmission pipelines, to increase efficiency and reduce emissions. Through these research efforts, NETL is not only combatting climate change, but also enhancing the efficient delivery of natural gas.

I’m extremely proud of the progress we’ve made. A few years ago, as an organization of energy investigators, we were working to find the most promising options for mitigating CO2 emissions from coal. Today, we’re seeing the fruits of our labor in action. Several commercial demonstration projects, supported by NETL, are proving the promise of advanced CCS technologies. For example, the Air Products Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage project in Port Arthur, Texas, will soon reach a milestone of capturing 2 million metric tons of CO2. This project captures CO2 emitted from two large steam methane reformers used to produce hydrogen. The captured gas is then used in enhanced oil recovery operations and is effectively stored in the process. Looking forward, the Petra Nova project, currently under construction, will help prove that carbon capture technologies can successfully be added to our current fleet. This demonstration project facility, just outside Houston, Texas, is designed to capture 90 percent of the CO2 from a portion of flue gas emitted from one of the plant’s coal-fired units. Once operational, the project will store more than a million tons of CO2 annually. This is CO2 that will not be going into our atmosphere and not contributing to global climate change.  This and other commercial demonstrations are proving to industry that CCS technology is a viable option to prepare for coming regulations. 

NETL will continue its efforts toward advancing the technology and underpinning science to mitigate climate change. I’m confident that our work today will help to ensure that future generations will continue to benefit from our abundant fossil energy resources while living in a world far less vulnerable to a changing climate. 

As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.