Murray Walsh: Welcome to NETPower, energy without emissions



Part three of a four-part series

We have previously examined fossil substances (or maybe we should say carbon-based substances so we can include traditional biomass) and the essential role they play in sustaining the world economy and society.  Are there ways to use them to get the energy and heat without harmful emissions?  

The answer is yes and two such methods will be discussed here. Hydrogen and oxy-combustion, have “arrived,” so to speak, and they mean that climate activists and fossil fuel defenders can have common cause if they want it.

Hydrogen has been around for centuries as an interesting substance and in various useful roles since the dawn of the industrial age.  It is pretty easy to make and there are several ways of doing so.  At least one of those ways, electrolysis, splitting the water molecule into pure oxygen and hydrogen, can be done with zero emissions. You do it with electricity. 

So, was the electricity generated cleanly? Sure! But we’ll get to that later. 

The thing about hydrogen is that it can be used as a transportation fuel like gas or gasoline.  It is compressible, even to a liquid state, and thus storable in tanks in vehicles. 

The most dramatic recent demonstration of the use of hydrogen was in Elon Musk’s recent sub-orbital tourism rocket launch. Do you remember what the exhaust flare on that rocket looked like? It was a solid blue torch that gave off no smoke or clouds of vapor. It reminded me of the Bunsen burners we used in high school chemistry. The key thing is that when you burn hydrogen, the only emission you get is a cool blue flame and plain old water. To create it, you crack the water molecule with external energy. To use it, you re-combine it with oxygen and blammo! You’ve got power to drive a piston in a reciprocating engine or to provide reaction mass to drive a rocket ship or jet airplane.

Electrolysis is a clean way to generate hydrogen but not very efficient. More efficient ways include cracking carbon-based substances. This is a quote from the USEIA website:

Steam-methane reforming accounts for nearly all commercially produced hydrogen in the United States.  Commercial hydrogen producers and petroleum refineries use steam-methane reforming to separate hydrogen atoms from carbon atoms in methane (CH4). 

Natural gas is the main methane source for hydrogen production by industrial facilities and petroleum refineriesLandfill gas/biogas, which may be called biomethane, is a source of hydrogen for several fuel cell power plants in the United States. Biofuels and petroleum fuels are also potential methane sources.

On that same federal webpage, other techniques are mentioned as in development or under study:

  • Using microbes that use light to make hydrogen
  • Converting biomass into gas or liquids and separating the hydrogen
  • Using solar energy technologies to split hydrogen from water molecules

The key points here are that hydrogen has great potential as a transportation fuel and that carbon-based feedstocks are increasingly efficient and effective means to obtaining it.

We now turn to the non-transportation side in energy production and that is the facility needed to produce electricity.  We have the means to distribute electricity (although it sounds like they need to tune it up a bit in California) but the primary issue is creating electricity without emissions.  

Welcome to the world of oxy-combustion.  Take a look at the website for for a more complete explanation than I can provide here.

Typical power plants, whether fossil fuel-fired or nuclear, use fuel to create heat which is used to create steam that turns a turbine assembly in which there is a rotor spinning within a stator.  It is the magic of this spinning motion that produces electricity.  In the past, the fossil fuel was combined with air to produce the heat and all manner of emissions spewed forth out the smokestack while the heat was applied to water to make steam.

Oxy-combustion is the mixing of pure oxygen with carbon-based gas to generate superheated high-pressure CO2 that is used instead of water-based steam to turn the turbine.   The CO2 – now at low pressure – is then processed, and re-pressurized to be sent back through the system or sent out of the plant in containers for other uses.  Not least of these other uses is to inject the CO2 into oil fields to help pressurize the crude oil from beneath to make it easier to pump. This sequesters the CO2.  

NETPower has a 50-megawatt plant in Texas that they built to demonstrate the technology.  Presumably, they also make money from it.  Let’s try to see how much. Fifty megawatts is a lot. It is 50 million watts. Over an hour’s time, that is 50-million-watt hours or 50,000 kilowatt hours.  

Electricity is sold by the kilowatt hour. Here in Juneau, we pay about 12 cents for one kWh. The local power company has to pay you the wholesale rate if you contribute power to the system. In Arizona, many homeowners have solar panels on their roofs that result in nearly zero payments to the electric company and maybe even a bit of money coming back because your roof generated more watts than your house needed. 

The local wholesale rate here in Juneau was $0.06 per kWh when I looked into it about 10 years ago. So, at that rate, the NETPower plant in Texas is earning about $6,000 per hour.  I have no idea how much gas they have to pay for, or how expensive it is to run the plant, but that works out to over $30,000,000 per month!  There might be some money to be made in the emission-free energy business.

Also, the NETPower development began with looking at coal as the carbon feedstock but they switched to natural gas for a lot of reasons.  This is good for gas and that might be the end of it but there are other forms of gas that are combustible. There is a group of such gases under the general name syngas and one such gas, maybe more, is derived from coal. Others can be derived from petroleum.  

The point here is that carbon is the common thread from all these feed stocks and all of them, including traditional biomass and landfill emissions could eventually feed an oxy-combustion plant.

This all sounds like the new energy holy grail, right?  Well, yes it does and I am sure you will be hearing more about it in the years to come, but just remember where you heard about it first, okay? 

Next in the series, how to use these new-fangled things in the near future.

Murray Walsh is part of the extended MRAK writing staff in JuneauCheck back for Part 4.


  1. Hopefully this is as promising as it sounds. Hopefully, this new technology will be made viable and available to all at a reasonable price before it is implemented. The course we’re on now is to outlaw current technologies and hopefully new technologies, whether viable or not, will be able to pick up the slack. Kind of a cart before the horse dilemma.

  2. Diversity of opinions!
    Diversity of energy sources!
    Diversity itself!
    I welcome all.
    But calling it fossil fuel??
    Seems a bit dark ages to me !
    Get back to me when you get the DNA on that quart of crude oil !😀

  3. Musk’s rockets are not hydrogen fueled.. The shuttle was. Hydrogen is great except that you have to make it from water, using electricity from other sources that are not clean. Solar is dirty .. Panel manufacturing takes gobs of power and uses very toxic chemicals. Windmills are very inefficient and leave you with big , messy blades that are hard to dispose of,not to mention that its exceedingly unreliable. We already saw the consequences of that recently. Wind doesn’t scale well. If you want to make hydrogen and lots of it, you need our friend, the atom! Yes, I said it.. Nuclear.Hydrogen isn’t really, A fuel, its an interchange medium. A way to get energy fromhere to there. Like a power line. It or a wall pkug. Electricity doesn’t come from wall plugs,like the green energy nuts seem to think. There are no free lunches in physics or engineering. No unicorn fart or fairy dust plans are going to allow us to have a viable economy.

  4. H2 has been used in rocketry since the Saturn V in the 1960s. The problem is that it is really difficult to store and use. Not only does it react with metals to embrittle those metals (think of storage and distribution), but it leaks really easily. NASA used to use infrared detectors to hunt for leaks as the flame of the leaks is not visible. It is also light and requires far more volume to store a gas, meaning you either have to pressurize or liquefy it. Methane / propane are far better choices, as they can be stored, transported, and the infrastructure for its use already exists.

    Interesting in the oxy-combustion plant. We will hope they are successful. OTOH, the old German Fischer – Tropsch process can be used to produce both electricity and liquid fuels. That technology is well known and nearly 80 years old. A 80,000 bbl/day CTL plant, say at Tyonek, would not only produce enough synthetic diesel to power the railbelt, but also around 350 MW of electricity, or about a third of what the railbelt uses. The reaction produces LOTS of CO2 which can be captured and sequestered. Doing this sort of thing on the North Slope via GTL may be the economically viable alternative to a natural gas pipeline. Cheers –

  5. The author seems to fail to understand how operating costs and cost over time works. The law of diminishing returns is also typically applicable to any of these ideas or projects. They stop making money and start costing money. If they actually worked and made money, people would be funding them. I guess he is an idiot because people throw money at projects that will make money. This is more of the green energy scam.

    Nuclear power is still the best. Most of the “green energy” is an absolute scam. Nuclear waste could be enriched to be used as fuel for the reactor, but due to stupid treaties we are not supposed to do that. We could get rid of most of the waste and gain fuel. SAFIRE claims to be able to remediate the waste, while producing large amounts of heat that could be used to produce power itself.

    I always notice that these articles typically never cover the fact that a lot of renewable energy projects are not done long term. They do not last as long and require more maintenance than a regular power plant. This is on top of the fact that if you trace the materials required to make them, they are both toxic and require mining that further damages the environment. Think about the ingredients of different batteries and how they require special disposal. Look at the different projects that lasted 10-20 years, but were left derelict as soon as it would no longer bring profit because the maintenance cost is too high and they begin producing much less electricity, plus battery storage decreases over time.

    Home solar sounds like a good idea, unless you live in an area without enough sun year round. It also becomes less efficient over time and you have a lot of additional maintenance that pops up. Wind turbines sound good, until you have periods with little to no wind. California is a great model for this problem. Speaking of that, how are all of the projects in California working out. Oh, brown-outs and black-outs every summer and failed maintenance on the lines? Seems to be working out for them. Maybe the author should do some actual research instead of just writing ideas and not researching why they do not work or the actual problems with them. Others in this section have already pointed out plenty of stuff.

      • 2nd. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming but I’m guessing this topic may be a step outside Mr. Walsh’s core competency.

        @Mr. Walsh: much of the misunderstanding can be cured w/ a $200 class and a $300 book in about 12 weeks. There are a few prereq’s though. Be picky about the instructor as this won’t be cake.

  6. “Live in energy poverty or use coal, oil and gas – not a difficult choice for most people in the world”. – Brad Hayes

  7. In the first part of this four part series I asked “How long has the power plant run for, how reliable is it, how much does it generate, and at what cost?” In the second part I said “Hopefully part three has more meat and potatoes about the carbon free plant that was alluded to in part one and didn’t seem to be mentioned in part two. Let’s hear more about how long the carbon free power plant has run for, how reliable is it, how much it generates, and at what cost. Let’s talk about green energy and how much this carbon free technology costs.”
    Part three gives us these gems “NETPower has a 50-megawatt plant in Texas that they built to demonstrate the technology. Presumably, they also make money from it.” And “the NETPower plant in Texas is earning about $6,000 per hour. I have no idea how much gas they have to pay for, or how expensive it is to run the plant, but that works out to over $30,000,000 per month!” $6,000 per hour x 24 hours = $144,000 per day, $144,000 per day x 30 day = $4,320,000 per month not $30,000,000. Math is hard.
    So a 50MW power plant, with an unknown amount of generating reliability, is supposedly generating an income that Mr. Walsh concludes is $30 million a month but simple math says is less than $5 million a month and as Mr. Walsh readily admits “I have no idea how much gas they have to pay for, or how expensive it is to run the plant” is the future of carbon free energy?
    This is starting to sound less like an idea that sounds good but never pencils out, and more like a guy who doesn’t really know what he’s talking about writing a four part series about something he admits he has no idea about…

    • It should also be noted that using Mr. Walsh’s numbers of $0.06 per kWh that would be $3,000 per hour and not $6,000 per hour since 50,000 kWh x $0.06 = $3,000 and not $6,000. So let’s half that less than $5 million per month figure because $3,000 per hour x 24 hours = $72,000 per day, $72,000 per day x 30 day = $2,160,000 per month not $30,000,000. Not even 10% of what Mr. Walsh claimed. Math is hard.

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