Exxon Mobil partners for new carbon capture pilot project

Exxon Mobil and FuelCell Energy said Thursday they will build a carbon capture pilot project at an Alabama power plant with the potential to finally make affordable “clean” coal and gas a reality.

After Exxon and Connecticut-based FuelCell announced a partnership in May, they have now chosen Southern Company’s Barry power plant near Mobile, Alabama for its first pilot project. The 2.7 gigawatt plant generates power from both coal and natural gas, so the pilot project allows them to test the new technology on both fossil fuel sources.

The idea is to capture up to 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants, so coal and natural gas could remain viable in both the developing and developed world while still meeting climate change goals, said FuelCell President and Chief Executive Chip Bottone in a phone interview.

“We’re trying to solve a very, very large problem with huge implications,” Bottone said.

While other carbon capture technologies exist, Exxon and FuelCell are touting this project as having the potential to reduce emissions substantially in an affordable way. The U.S. Energy Department also is a partner in the 2.4 megawatt pilot project.

The technology uses carbonate fuel cells to take methane and carbon dioxide and turn them into electricity and concentrated carbon dioxide, the latter of which can be sequestered into the earth.

The fuel cell technology is cheaper and generates additional electricity, as opposed to existing carbon capture technologies that consume power and are too cost prohibitive, said Vijay Swarup, Exxon vice president for research and development.

“You’re attaching a power plant on the back of a power plant,” Swarup said. “What makes this fuel cell unique is it can accept CO2 as a feedstock.”

This compares to other high-profile carbon capture projects such as Southern Company’s nearly completed Kemper project in Mississippi, which  now costs almost $7 billion. The Kemper project is $4 billion over budget and more than two years behind schedule. It’s supposed to capture at least 65 percent of the coal plant’s carbon emissions.

“The (carbon capture) landscape has some lackluster results so far,” Bottone said.

Of course, the Exxon and FuelCell partnership has a long ways to go with no set timeline in place. They decided to take the unique approach of launching the pilot project while the research and development still has a ways to go. The hope is the “parallel approach” will expedite the process.

“We’re going to learn things that we don’t even know we should be asking right now,” Swarup said.

Before teaming up with Exxon, FuelCell said it intended to move forward with $24 million in pilot projects. Bottone said more money is on the table now, but he wouldn’t give any new cost projections.