Powerspan’s ‘missionary work’

With progress stalled in Congress over climate change and a long-term energy policy, the fate of green energy companies like Portsmouth-based Powerspan Corp. hang in the balance. Founded in 1994, Powerspan has specialized in the development and commercialization of carbon capture and multi-pollutant control technology for the electric power industry. After years of development, Powerspan’s signature deployment, the carbon dioxide post-combustion capture technology called ECO2, passed what the company said was a significant hurdle after a successful pilot phase at a coal-fired power plant owned by FirstEnergy in Ohio.Powerspan chief executive calls ECO2 “a critical, cost-effective technology to help address the issue of climate change.”Results of tests at the company’s 1 megawatt pilot unit, he said, showed performance goals were reached in capturing 90 percent of carbon dioxide from the flue gas of a coal-fired power plant during the yearlong project.The technology is complex but, simply put, it captures carbon dioxide that is then dried, compressed, made ready for pipeline transport and, finally, sequestered. The pilot performance data — which will be released in an official audit in the next few months — provided all of the information needed for Powerspan to confidently move to commercial scale demonstration systems, Alix said.“We’ve been developing (this technology) for a number of years and are one of the few companies in the world that have demonstrated carbon capture,” he said. “We believe from the data we have produced we have a leading solution from a cost standpoint.”Tackling coal emissionsAlix believes Powerspan has the right technology with the right cost-efficiencies at the right time in history, and he spends a fair amount of his time spreading the gospel.He testified in the U.S. House last year about carbon capture and sequestration — or CCS, as it’s known in the industry — as part of climate change legislation hearings. He also has worked closely with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on climate change policy.In December, Alix took part in President Obama’s White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, which followed Alix’s November trip to China, where he participated on a “Clean Coal including CCS” panel at the U.S.-China Clean Energy Roundtable held in Beijing during Obama’s visit to China.Over 100 experts attended the event, including government officials from the United States and China, as well as executives from some of the world’s leading clean-energy technology companies.While some in the environmental community are skeptical of CCS, Alix told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment that “the most important reason to promote early deployment of CCS is that post-combustion CO2 capture technologies will preserve the huge investment in existing coal-fired power plants and allow us to effectively use abundant, low-cost coal reserves in the U.S. and developing nations, even in a climate-constrained world.”In short, the point is that coal isn’t going away any time soon — some 40 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal-fired plants, such as Public Service of New Hampshire’s Merrimack Station in Bow. It’s also the dominant form of electricity generation in fast-developing countries such as China and India.That’s why Alix believes that any successful climate change policy will depend on the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases using carbon capture technologies.Powerspan has positioned itself, Alix said, “as a small fish in a large pond” of competitors (such as Shell and Siemens) that are poised to fight it out in a marketplace that could quickly develop — if significant climate change legislation is passed in Congress that will provide subsidies and incentives to employ systems such as ECO2.Such systems don’t come cheap. Alix said that they can range in cost from $200 million to $500 million. And without the legislative push, Alix said, “companies are not going to shell out the hundreds of millions” in investment dollars for technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide. Economic impactBut the “if” of federal climate change legislation is no small matter.While the House has passed an energy and climate change bill that included cap and trade provisions, the legislation has bogged down in the Senate due to a concerted effort by climate change opponents, such as the coal industry, to portray the legislation as too costly, not timely due to the down economy and not needed because the science of climate change is unproven.Alix admits frustration about the contours of the political debate, which he said is preventing serious and necessary policy initiatives from moving forward. He said the “naysayers” who reject climate change science and speak of economic catastrophe if climate policy is passed are “too strongly influencing public perception” and getting too much free publicity.“It’s a little concerning for me. There are legitimate questions about climate science, and I understand the economic argument about whether we should make such a large investment without knowing what the payback is,” Alix said. “I can’t say with certainty what climate change will produce, but the preponderance of evidence in the scientific community shows there is a substantial risk.”Shaheen points to companies such as Powerspan as examples of why climate change legislation is necessary — not only to deal with the long-term impact of climate change, but for the country’s long-term economic growth, as other countries get a head start in large-scale and economically viable solutions.“Powerspan is a leader in developing cutting-edge clean coal technologies that could help drastically reduce carbon pollution and is a great example of the enormous potential for job creation in New Hampshire in a clean energy economy,” said Shaheen. “Their technology is one that we could develop and manufacture right here in the U.S. and sell to the rest of the world.”In his congressional testimony, Alix emphasized the potential economic benefits.“A single CCS project would cost between $250 million to $750 million in capital expense and create up to 500 jobs at its peak, with the majority of materials and labor sourced in the United States,” he said. Alix said this year will be a crucial one because Powerspan’s future is “in limbo.”Powerspan has 100 employees, with an R&D facility in New Durham and a demonstration plant in Ohio. A year ago, the company completed an additional round of $50 million in venture capital financing (overall, the company has raised $120 million). It has caught the attention and financial support of major green- and energy-sector venture capital firms. International financier George Soros also has invested — an investment that is part of the billion dollars Soros has promised to invest in clean technology companies around the globe.Powerspan has made its introductions around the globe — in Europe, Australia and China — and Alix said he believes the company will eventually make breakthroughs as countries begin to adjust their policy priorities and as the ECO2 technology gets a closer inspection. But the United States is the biggest market after China, and Alix is concerned that, if Congress doesn’t act, the country will lose a crucial competitive and technological edge for scores of green-focused companies like Powerspan.If the government can foster development and infrastructure for the Internet, which has had an immeasurable impact on the economy, it can do the same for important green energy technologies, he said.“It’s rewarding to create something you really believe in, and most of us feel privileged,” Alix said. “On the flip side, it can be very frustrating to do missionary work like this. We don’t want to end up like pioneers with our face in the mud and arrows in our back.”