Experimental power plant using CO2 in San Antonio could be future of energy production

Southwest Research Institute getting international attention as plant puts out energy for first time

SAN ANTONIO – KSAT got a front-row seat to the possible future of energy production.

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) built a power plant from the ground up, and its energy production is attracting attention.

“It’s designed and funded by the Department of Energy to demonstrate a next-generation power cycle,” said Southwest Research Institute’s Machinery Department director Tim Allison, who oversees the project.

SwRI is creating energy through a turbine powered by carbon dioxide.

“Most of the world’s power is made through steam. Supercritical CO2 is denser than steam, so that means your equipment can be smaller for the same amount of power, and you can ramp up faster,” Allison said. “It’s more efficiently using less fuel for cheaper, so we all like lower utility bills.”

Using CO2 is innovative but also helps the environment, which is rare for a project creating energy.

CO2 is what we exhale when we breathe. When the gas is released, it eventually builds up in the atmosphere.

Our breath affects only a tiny percent of our planet. The main culprits are burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and farming livestock.

So, any project that uses CO2 for good will help our planet.

“It is a use for CO2 that we capture, so that prevents it from going out to the atmosphere and, more importantly, because CO2 is more efficient than steam,” Allison said.

Jonathan Wade, manager of the Power Cycle Machinery Section, is the project’s hands-on, day-to-day supervisor.

Wade explained how the process works for anyone who wants the specifics.

“We’re compressing a fluid, we’re adding heat, and then we’re extracting that energy through, in this case, a turbine. Then we’re cooling it down,” he said. “And in this case, it’s a closed loop, so the same molecule, same CO2 molecules, are going around being compressed, having heat energy added into them.”

This project’s success was six years in the making. The site where the plant is now used to be an empty field. The team broke ground in 2018 and completed construction in 2023.

In May 2024, the plant generated electricity for the very first time.

“It’s very satisfying to work on such a big project over so many years with such a big team,” Wade said.

That’s just the beginning. They will continue running tests and making tweaks. The goal is to have the plant produce enough energy to power 7,000 to 10,000 homes.

“It’s also compatible with other renewable sources of heat, so advanced nuclear power plants are interested in this technology. Geothermal actually can use it too,” Allison said.

“This could be a national and really a worldwide resource. We do have inquiries from companies all over the world that have interest in supercritical CO2 power, soft power cycles,” Wade said.

The plant KSAT saw is a lot bigger than future plants, but that’s on purpose. It’s spread out so researchers can work on and tweak certain parts.

“We are demonstrating that this is feasible. This is something that can go to the next step — being a commercial application,” Wade said.

The plant will become a training location for the foreseeable future, where teams from all over can learn and further this research. It’s putting San Antonio on one of the most important stages for clean energy.

“It positions San Antonio as a clean energy research hub. We expect to be able to do a lot of work, developing and testing components for these cycles,” Allison said.

“It’s a great honor,” Wade said.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.

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