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Guiding Light: New Research Explores Ways to Cut Water Use and Emissions in Energy Production

Speaking at the Energy 2020 summit in Washington D.C., GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt announced today that GE will invest an additional $10 billion in “ecomagination” research by 2020, to reach a total of $25 billion since the program’s inception a decade ago.

Ecomagination is GE’s company-wide push designed to develop cleaner and more efficient technologies. It has generated $160 billion in revenues since 2005.

The projects generating buzz inside GE include a search for alternative technologies to replace the water that now forms the basis of the hydraulic fracturing process; solutions to cut the wasteful flaring of natural gas; systems to reduce the cost of wind power while simultaneously increasing wind turbine output; and innovative ways to make power plants more efficient.

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This NASA satellite photo captures light emitted by natural gas flares released by new oil and gas wells on the plains of northwestern North Dakota. The flares make the thinly populated area around Williston, ND, as bright at night as a large city. Credit: NASA

For example, scientists at GE and Statoil are in the early stages of a collaboration to evaluate whether COcan be economically used as an alternative to water in fracturing, potentially reducing the large amounts of water used today.

The vast majority of existing fracturing operations pump pressurized water to open the rock and carry the oil and gas back above ground. Operators can use millions of gallons of water over the lifetime of a well. But in geographical regions where water is scarce, the process poses a potential problem.

While the use of COto fracture unconventional resources does happen today, it is not an economically viable option for large-scale applications due to its high costs. The goal of GE and Statoil’s new research is to evaluate whether they can design a system to economically use COto fracture rock formations; and then capture it again for re-use on the next well.

Mike Bowman, an engineer in the sustainable energy advanced technology lab at GE Global Research, says that CO2, if economically feasible, will have an extra benefit, too, as the gas can sometimes be better at releasing resources than water.

“The efficiency of the actual fracturing process should be the same as or close to the water process,” he said. “An efficiency benefit will come when the well starts producing since the COthat is left behind will improve the yield of hydrocarbons out of the well more than using water.”

The Statoil venture is an example of GE helping its customers deal with large challenges through ecomagination.

For example, the company is working with Ferus Natural Gas Fuels to capture natural gas from oil wells that is currently being flared, remove valuable natural gas liquids such as butane, and then compress it into CNG. The fuel can then be used to power wells and other field operations, replacing higher-cost and higher-emissions diesel. The first such systems are already working on a Statoil site in North Dakota.

Immelt also said in D.C. today that GE was expanding its own ecological footprint. The company has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent since 2004 and freshwater use by 47 percent since 2006.

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