SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 4 (Reuters) - NRG Energy on Friday will begin retrofitting one unit of its WA Parish power plant in Texas to capture its carbon emissions but the technology has a long ways to go to reduce climate change, the company's chief executive officer said.
The $1 billion Petra Nova project, a joint venture with Japan's JX Nippon, will eventually trap 1.6 million tons of carbon annually from the coal unit and pipe it 82 miles (132 km) to an oil field, where it will be injected underground to help push crude oil to the surface.
The revenue from the sale of that oil will eventually pay for the installation of the expensive carbon capture equipment. When completed in 2016, Petra Nova will be the largest project of its kind in the world.
While the success of the project is important to proving the nascent technology is workable, more breakthroughs are need if carbon capture and sequestration technology is going to help prevent runaway climate change, NRG CEO David Crane told Reuters on Thursday.
Only about 5 percent of the carbon emitted by all of the coal-fired power plants in the United States could employ the system used at Petra Nova, he said, since many coal plants are not located near oil fields or carbon transportation systems.
"This isn't the panacea or the final solution in the climate wars, but it's an important step," Crane said.
"The technology we're using comes from the chemical industry and it's tried and true. But somewhere in the next five to 10 years they're going to find a completely different way of isolating the carbon molecules. That's where you're going to find a disruptive breakthrough in the sector that's going to help save the world," he said.
Petra Nova previously received a $167 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a clean coal initiative, money NRG said was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.
Chris Smith, principal deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy at the Energy Department, defended the use of captured carbon to extract fossil fuels even as the administration focuses on addressing climate change.
"You're not increasing oil consumption. Oil demand is what it is," Smith told Reuters in a phone interview. "It prevents us from having to import that quantity of oil from overseas."
Smith said linking enhanced oil recovery to carbon capture is essential at this point to support large projects demonstrating the technology that would limit the greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"Right now where you don't have a price on carbon, these projects are critically important and they do a lot of good," Smith said.
"I think that you can't think about the sustainable clean energy economy of the future without thinking about how you manage emitting sources of today."
Reporting by Rory Carroll in San Francisco and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker