More on the Carbon Capture and Storage Horse Race: California Efforts

The Climeworks direct air capture plant in Hinwil, Switzerland, binds carbon dioxide to water and pumps it far underground.(Climeworks)

Matthew commented yesterday and included this quote from Jeremy Nichols: that he’s “incredibly skeptical” that the project will ever be built due to costs and “the commercially unproven nature of carbon capture and sequestration.”

I was about to go through the points that despite being currently unproven (economically, at scale), many people, including scientists, say we need it to stay below desired climate targets. Conveniently, Evan Halper of the LA Times had a nice summary as part of a recent article on “what California is doing about CCS.” I’ve bolded the parts that might be of interest to federal lands and forest watchers.

Here’s the link to the whole story..

It is no small undertaking. Installing sci-fi-type machinery to pull carbon from the air — or divert it from refineries, power plants and industrial operations — and bottle it up deep underground is a monumentally expensive and logistically daunting challenge. It is one climate leaders now have no choice but to try to meet as they race to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the central commitment of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which aims to avert cataclysmic effects.

“To have any chance of holding warming below that level, you can’t do it simply by limiting emissions,” said Ken Alex, a senior policy advisor to former California Gov. Jerry Brown who now directs Project Climate at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “You have to sequester significant amounts of carbon.”

The recognition has pushed state regulators to start drafting blueprints for what could be one of the larger infrastructure undertakings in California history. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide would need to be captured and compressed into liquid form, at which point it would be either buried throughout the state or converted into materials for industrial uses such as manufacturing plastic and cement.

The state is essentially starting from zero. There are no large-scale carbon-removal projects operating in California.

Carbon Engineering is promising that oil extraction is not in its long-term future. The oil revenues, the company says, make it possible to get early plants built. The hope is the costs of the plants will get much cheaper as the technology is put to widespread use, making it economical to just bury the carbon dioxide in the ground.

The European company Climeworks has taken a different route, using modular units to build smaller operations across the continent. Its biggest, in Iceland, will go online soon, collecting 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually. That would be dwarfed by what Carbon Engineering is projecting in Texas. But there is no fossil fuel component to the Climeworks projects.

“This is scalable,” said Christoph Beuttler, a manager at Climeworks. “We can get the costs down. Just imagine we were talking about solar panels in the 1990s and how far the prices have dropped. We think the same thing can be achieved here. “

California officials say direct-air-capture developers are eyeing where in the state they can build. Some are looking toward remote areas in Northern California where they could tap into geothermal energy, as Climeworks will do to power its Icelandic plant. Others are more focused on the deep underground basins of the Central Valley, suitable for storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

The vacuums are just one of many technologies California and other states are investigating in their sprint toward carbon removal. Back in Washington, there is a bipartisan push to allocate billions of dollars to the construction of pipelines and storage facilities for all the carbon dioxide lawmakers envision will be diverted underground in the coming years.

One of the first projects moving forward in California targets agriculture and wood waste that would otherwise be burned, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. It aims to convert the waste into zero emissions power using a pioneering gasification process. The emissions created during production would be trapped and buried underground.

Other efforts are focused on the potential to trap greenhouse gases at factories for such things as cement and steel. Their production is emissions intensive due to the high heat temperatures needed and chemical reactions involved, and the only option for canceling out those emissions is diverting and burying the carbon dioxide.

“Some of these facilities cannot or will not be shut down, replaced or switched to carbon-free fuels quickly enough … to contain climate change at manageable levels,” said a recent report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory urging California to become a carbon removal leader.

The race to bring carbon removal technologies to market is getting a boost from billionaire Elon Musk. On Thursday, Earth Day, his XPrize will launch a $100-million contest aimed at inspiring teams of innovators to develop carbon removal projects capable of being scaled “massively to gigaton levels, locking away CO2 permanently in an environmentally benign way.”

Groups of scientists have meanwhile been drafting blueprints for California’s transition into the new technologies. An exhaustive study by Stanford and the Energy Futures Initiative identified 76 existing factories, power plants and other facilities in the state where carbon capture technology could be used to remove 59 million metric tons of greenhouse gas annually by 2030.

3 thoughts on “More on the Carbon Capture and Storage Horse Race: California Efforts”

  1. There wasn’t much here about “who pays,” but you left out this part – “The Carbon Engineering Texas project is a topic of hot debate among climate activists. To make the project pencil out financially, the carbon dioxide pulled from the air will be injected into the ground in a way that helps Occidental extract oil that can then be sold on the market.” And without some kind of profit generation, it’s hard to imagine scaling this up without politically untenable (in the foreseeable future) taxpayer subsidies (and that’s just in this rich country). Every little bit would help, but it seems foolish to count on a meaningful contribution from CCS.


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