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SwRI, GTI and GE break ground on $119 million supercritical CO2 pilot power plant

Oct. 15, 2018 — Southwest Research Institute (SwRI®), Gas Technology Institute (GTI), GE Global Research (GE), and the U.S. Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE/NETL) today celebrated the groundbreaking of the Supercritical Transformational Electric Power (STEP) pilot plant. This $119 million first-of-its-kind 10-megawatt supercritical carbon dioxide (sCO2) facility will demonstrate the next generation of higher-efficiency, lower-cost electric power technology.

“We’re reaching a milestone in the future of power plant technology, thanks to the vision, technical expertise and determination of GTI, Southwest Research Institute, and GE Global Research. Their efforts will help lay the groundwork for even wider deployment of supercritical CO2 power cycles – and that means a smaller footprint, higher efficiency, reduced water usage, lower CO2 emissions, and less expensive power generation,” said DOE Assistant Secretary of Fossil Energy Steven Winberg. “With this pilot plant, the technology is moving from the lab to the field. This project will provide important data on the potential challenges of operating the technology on a larger scale.”

“The STEP pilot plant is the home of a truly innovative technology developed in Texas that is about to change the way we think about power generation,” said SwRI President and CEO Adam Hamilton. “This new facility’s ability to generate power in a way that is more efficient, cost-effective and less harmful to the environment is remarkable. This project has the potential to revolutionize the industry as we know it.”

About 60 percent of all power in North America comes from the burning of fossil fuel. Most power plants in the United States are close to 30 years old, with many operating at 35 percent efficiency or less while creating significant greenhouse gas emissions from burning large amount of hydrocarbon fuels.

The STEP facility is designed to address these challenges with efficiency increases approaching 10%. SwRI, GTI and GE are leaders in sCO2 power cycles. SwRI has conducted more than 20 related U.S. Department of Energy projects, including the development of highly efficient sCO2 power cycle technology. GTI and GE also bring extensive experience with sCO2 technology and the key building blocks to make the STEP project a success and a landmark demonstration.

“GTI is pleased to lead advancement of this transformational technology for clean power generation,” said David Carroll, President and CEO of GTI. “The STEP Demo will demonstrate a fully integrated power plant to generate electricity with dramatically improved efficiencies, economics, and environmental performance. We are excited to bring together key government and industry partners, leveraging our collective skills and expertise in this important project to benefit consumers, industry, and the nation.”

sCO2 is carbon dioxide held above a critical temperature and pressure, which causes it to act like a gas while having the density of a liquid. It’s also nontoxic and nonflammable, and its supercritical state makes sCO2 a highly efficient fluid to generate power because small changes in temperature or pressure cause significant shifts in its density. Current power plants use water as a thermal medium in power cycles. Replacing it with sCO2 increases efficiency by as much as 10 percent.

Because of the efficiency of sCO2 as a thermal medium, STEP turbomachinery can be one tenth the size of conventional power plant components, providing the potential to shrink the environmental footprint as well as the construction cost of any new facilities. The new STEP facility will be significantly smaller than today’s power plants. For example, a desk-sized sCO2 turbine could power 10,000 homes.

SwRI, GTI and GE have collaborated on the design of the STEP Demo project located on SwRI’s San Antonio grounds. The pilot plant is specially designed to evolve overtime to keep pace with industry advancements. The facility features skid-mounted components that provide flexibility and a unique reconfigurable design. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2020.

“GE scientists and engineers have turned conventional wisdom on its head by developing a desk-sized turbine that can power up to 10,000 homes,” Todd Wetzel, Power Business Program Manager at GE Global Research. “We are excited to partner with SWRI, GTI and the DOE to accelerate development of this disruptive energy technology and explore the various ways that we can use supercritical CO2 to more efficiently generate power.”

The STEP facility is positioned to cement Texas’s burgeoning position as a leader in the energy industry and to act as a hub of activity for the international power industry. Its funding supplements $35 million in related research and will drive continued job creation in research, engineering and construction as well as enhanced research and education opportunities for the next generation of energy professionals.

For more information visit Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Power Systems, STEP Pilot Plant or contact Joanna Carver, (210) 522-2073, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.