Carbon Capture & Storage — On the Road to Negative Emissions

By Joe Wachunas

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) uses machines to pull carbon dioxide from smokestacks or directly out of the air, and then stores the CO2 somewhere, usually underground. In the last couple of years the industry is starting to get some major attention and investment. Elon Musk invested $100 million in CCS technologies recently. Bill Gates, and others, are investing heavily as well, and around 30 CCS projects are in various stages of development in the US, most having been announced in the last three years. 

Carbon capture as a technology is not new as it has been used in the natural gas processing industry for decades. The US has 5000 miles of CO2 pipelines carrying the gas from such points of capture to point of injection. However, using CCS for climate purposes is new. And new applications of technologies tend to be expensive (think solar or batteries 10 years ago). However, as this technology scales, costs are expected to come down and carbon capture and storage is expected to play a major role in solving our climate crisis in the decades to come.

Do we need to sequester CO2?

There is a lot of debate at CleanTechnica, and in general, about sequestration. Some wonder if trying to capture and sequester carbon is a distraction. Others worry that investing in sequestration offers a false “get out of jail free card,” promising some still far off technological solution that will keep us stuck on the same polluting fossil fuels that we need to stop using ASAP today. Fellow CleanTechnica columnist Steve Hanley writes that CCS is, “Mostly a scam devised by the fossil fuel industry.” 

But if there is any lesson from the sequestration experts I’ve been talking to, it’s that, to solve this climate crisis we need “both and.” That is, we’re going to need all possible strategies to solve the climate crisis, not “either this or that” but “both this and that.” 

Carbon Capture Technology — courtesy of Svante

As Deepika Nagabhushan, Program Director for Carbon Capture and Storage, with Clean Air Task Force says, “climate change is going to be a complex problem to solve, and we cannot expect a single technology to be the full answer. I feel like when people want that simple answer and believe that we can only have solar or carbon capture and storage rescue us, neither answer is correct.  There is no silver bullet.”

She goes on, “when you look at the IPCC 1.5 degree scenario, we reach net zero emissions in 2050 when there is both carbon removal plus there are still going to be some emissions. In the model, it takes another 10 years (until 2060) to get the emissions down to zero, but you have to continue to have negative emissions (carbon sequestration), even beyond that point. Even after 2060, 2070 all the way to 2100 you will still need to generate negative emissions, that is the only way you can actually avoid overshoot.”

“What we want to prevent is going beyond two degrees and then coming back down because at that point you’ve already lost a lot of ecosystems.  You’ve lost your great barrier reef, you’ve lost a lot of species so that’s what we need to prevent. We need to prevent overshoot and so negative emissions are going to have to be a constant piece of that puzzle, even after we get to zero emissions.”

How much carbon will we need to sequester?

The experts, I talked to, used adjectives like, “mind-boggling,” and “staggering,” to describe the amount of CO2 we’ll need to sequester to keep our climate livable.

Svante’s demonstration site in British Columbia. Courtesy of Svante.

Deepika continues, “In the 1.5 degrees scenario under the IPCC modeling we see between 350 billion metric tonnes globally by 2100 to up to about 1.2 trillion (cumulatively). The modelling says that by 2050 we’re going to have to start sequestering 7.5 to 8 billion metric tonnes of CO2 annually.”

It’s hard to wrap our minds around those numbers but they are incomprehensibly more than we have the capacity to sequester today. In fact, the annual total we’re going to need to sequester is more carbon than the entire US emits in a single year ( 6.7 billion tonnes). Imagine taking all the CO2 coming out of every tailpipe, furnace flue, cement factory and coal plant in the US today and pumping it underground, and you get a sense of what we need to scale up to. And right now, we’re doing very little of that. 

Industry – One the Best Applications for Carbon Capture and Storage

The first promising applications for carbon capture and storage are capturing emissions from industry. That’s where the CCS company Svante is putting its resources. Brett Henkel is Co-Founder and Vice President of Strategic Accounts at Svante:

“The cement industry is the source of about 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions, cement plants are everywhere and there’s very few options to deal with the CO2 that comes from making it, so it seems like such an obvious target for sequestration.”

While the percentage of CO2 contained in the flue gas of a natural gas power plant smokestack is around 4%, in cement flue gas the CO2 concentration is between 15-30%. This means it is cheaper to capture CO2 because there is more CO2.  Also, most of the CO2 emitted during cement production comes from the limestone itself, so switching to electric or hydrogen for heat does not solve the problem. The other areas that Svante is targeting for CCS are fertilizers, plastics and hydrogen. “Fertilizer plants and plastic production require a lot of natural gas just for heat and it’s difficult to switch that to electric. The other area that we see is a huge growth area that makes a lot of sense, is hydrogen production. I’m a big believer that the hydrogen economy is coming. And, the most economical way of producing hydrogen is using natural gas. As long as you capture and sequester the CO2 coming from that process.”

But none of these applications are cost competitive yet. At a cement plant in British Columbia, Svante operates a pilot test plant that captures 1 tonne per day of CO2. Then, the captured CO2 will be used “ to demonstrate CO2 utilization solutions such as low-carbon fuels, CO2 concrete, and fly ash. This project provides an opportunity for global industry leaders to work together using everyone’s expertise to create new business models while reducing CO2 emissions.”

Svante’s CCS demonstration site in British Columbia

But carbon sequestered from this demonstration project currently costs $400/ton while carbon is currently selling for $12-$15/ton on the California market. If Svante and others could scale this carbon capture and storage though, prices would go down. “If we could capture all 2300 tonnes per day from that cement plant and that CO2 could be utilized by technologies, then that will bring those costs down. But that doesn’t exist right now, it is a challenge for any utilization technologies can deal with 2300 tonnes per day.” 

Will CCS Help us Clean up the Electricity Sector?

A question remains whether Carbon Capture and Storage will help clean up electricity production. The experts I talked to disagreed on this point. Brett, at Svante, thought that the electricity sector looked less promising for carbon capture technology. He said that Svante got “a little bit burned” because they “spent quite a bit of time in Alberta working on coal power plants and then (the operators) just decided to turn them all off or switch them to natural gas. And we see that as a very logical choice. And that’s what’s happened over the last five years, imagine what happens over the next 10 years.” Brett thinks there are many options to clean up our electricity supply and that it is happening so quickly that we won’t need much CCS and it won’t make much financial sense given the alternatives.

Deepika feels that CCS must be one of the tools in getting our electricity production to 100% zero emission.  “We might get 60 or 70% zero emissions from renewable penetration in the electricity grid” she said“ but as we get closer to 100%, even in states like California there are going to be a lot of issues such as siting, many of which we’re already seeing.”

And this is just the US.  “In Southeast Asia or India or China there’s a 30x the number of coal and natural gas plants (in terms of capacity) that are less than 10 years of age than there are in the US today.” Could CCS be an affordable technological solution that helps bring these grids down to zero emissions given the young age of thermal power plants that currently exist in Asia? 

Where to store CO2?

But where are we going to store all this CO2?  Geological storage looks like our best bet, and that is where most of the early applications are being tested.

Brett Henkel shared that, “Geological storage has been done for decades in the oil industry and they’ve been very successful on permanence (keeping the CO2 sequestered permanently). I don’t think there’s a real question in the scientific community on the ability for us to do long term CO2 geological sequestration safely and permanently.  I know there is the ‘not in my backyard’ issue and that’s a very large issue in Europe, where Germany and some other countries decided that CO2 isn’t going to be stored under the ground there rather it has to go into the North Sea.”

Direct Air Capture 

Elon musk just announced an investment of $100 million dollars for sequestering carbon directly from the air, called “direct air capture.” Remember the percentages of CO2 cited above? In power plants, the percentage of CO2 coming out of smokestacks is 4% and in cement factories, it’s 16-18%. In the air we breathe, CO2 is a miniscule fraction of these totals – just .04%. This means that pulling CO2 out of normal air is a lot harder than pulling it out of the off gassing from a cement factory because there is so much less of it.

But with Elon Musk getting in the game, Brett, from Svante, thinks that he’s making carbon capture technology “sexy, and that has been a struggle for 15 years. Capturing CO2 from flue gas and putting it in the ground is very boring. Capturing carbon from the air, captures the imagination, especially if Elon Musk is involved, so that that’s good because that’s going to float all boats.”

Deepika agreed. “With Elon Musk, there are just so many eyes on this now, and I thought that was much needed advertising.”

Brett says that Svante’s goal is still “point source capture (where you capture CO2 from a smoke stack). We believe that has to be tackled first because there’s so much of it, so that’s what we’re going after. But we totally agree with direct air capture.”

Investment in Carbon Capture Technologies

Where is carbon sequestration and storage headed from here? In addition to some of the big investments over the last couple of weeks and months, Svante itself just closed a $75 million, series D, round of financing last month. Brett says, “strategic investors are putting real money down for real projects” so that this nascent industry will hopefully get the funding it needs to scale. Deepika and her colleagues at the Clean Air Task Force are working to develop federal and state level policies for CCS to get the RD&D support it requires initially and deployment policies such as expanding the 45Q tax incentive to enable the 30-odd CCS projects under development, including Svante’s project in Colorado, to break ground soon.

Whether that will mean investing in direct air capture or point source capture, it seems like we are going to need BOTH. AND we’re going to need to eliminate our emissions at the same time. A huge task is ahead of us, but it was refreshing and inspiring to have a chance to talk with some of the brightest minds leading the charge on this critical solution.

The conversation continues. Join us for a webinar on Carbon Capture and Storage with Brett Henkel and Deepika Nagabhushan on March 8 as part of Sequestration Week.

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