NEWS A climate change solution slowly gains ground

For the orig­i­nal Wash­ing­ton Post, story, click here.

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — At the end of a cul-​​de-​​sac called Fresh Way, two bright green struc­tures the size of ship­ping con­tain­ers gleam in the warm sun­light, qui­etly suck­ing from the air the car­bon diox­ide that is warm­ing the planet.

One struc­ture houses com­puter mon­i­tors and con­trols. Atop the other, large fans draw air through slabs made of honeycomb-​​style ceramic cubes. The cubes hold pro­pri­etary chem­i­cals that act like sponges, absorb­ing car­bon diox­ide at room tem­per­a­ture. Every 15 min­utes, the slabs rotate and the cubes are heated, releas­ing a stream of 99 per­cent pure car­bon diox­ide into a shiny steel pipe.

This is Global Ther­mo­stat, one of just three com­pa­nies at the lead­ing edge of the hunt for ways of skim­ming car­bon diox­ide from the air. It is a tiny step, but a hope­ful one, toward reduc­ing global warm­ing. Amid a steady drum­beat of grim news about cli­mate change, more and more peo­ple are cap­ti­vated by the idea that a fea­si­ble process can help off­set decades of dam­age to the atmosphere.

Some big deep-​​pocketed cor­po­ra­tions — includ­ing oil com­pa­nies — are look­ing, too. They are lured not so much by the virtues of fight­ing cli­mate change but by the prospects of mak­ing money. Though long a pro­hib­i­tively expen­sive tech­nol­ogy, car­bon cap­ture has become a tan­ta­liz­ing pos­si­bil­ity thanks to tech­no­log­i­cal advances — and new gen­er­ous gov­ern­ment incentives.

There’s lit­tle time to spare. The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change has writ­ten that any hope to meet the 2 degree Cel­sius goal for global warm­ing “will require mea­sures to reduce emis­sions, includ­ing the fur­ther deploy­ment of exist­ing and new technologies.”

For a decade, the three com­pa­nies — Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, Clime­works and Global Ther­mo­stat — have exper­i­mented with tech­nolo­gies such as the shape and chem­i­cal makeup of the spon­ge­like mem­branes in an effort to reduce the tow­er­ing cost of cap­tur­ing car­bon diox­ide directly from thin air.

Now their work is poised to move beyond the lab tables and prototypes.

Our busi­ness plan is to show that clean­ing the atmos­phere is a prof­itable activ­ity,” said Gra­ciela Chichilnisky, a Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor and one of the co-​​founders of Global Ther­mo­stat who esti­mates that CO2 could become a tril­lion dol­lar market.

Over the past sev­eral years, the firms have vied to make tech­no­log­i­cal progress. The cost of car­bon cap­ture has fallen from $600 a ton to as low as $100 a ton — and lower if a cheap or free source of heat or energy is available.

Fed­eral sub­si­dies are just as impor­tant. New U.S. fed­eral tax cred­its pro­vide as much as $50 for every ton of car­bon diox­ide cap­tured and stored under­ground in well-​​sealed geo­log­i­cal formations.

Oil com­pa­nies can use the cred­its to pay for turn­ing cap­tured car­bon diox­ide into trans­porta­tion fuels, essen­tially recy­cling the CO2. That would help Big Oil meet Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tions requir­ing lower amounts of car­bon in motor fuels.

And the oil giants can also claim a $35-​​a-​​ton credit for enhanced oil recov­ery — inject­ing car­bon diox­ide into the ground to increase well pres­sure and boost oil pro­duc­tion in old fields like the Per­mian Basin in west Texas. Oil com­pa­nies cur­rently extract nat­ural car­bon diox­ide from nat­ural reser­voirs before pump­ing it back into the ground.

The fed­eral tax cred­its, known as 45Q cred­its, were slipped into the 2018 fed­eral bud­get in the wee hours of Feb. 9, 2018, after a nine-​​hour gov­ern­ment shut­down. It attracted sup­port from both par­ties, with lead­ing roles played by Sen. John Bar­rasso, R-​​Wyo., whose state relies heav­ily on oil, gas and coal pro­duc­tion, and Sen. Shel­don White­house, D-R.I., who has spo­ken almost weekly on the Sen­ate floor about the urgency of cli­mate change and the dan­ger of burn­ing fos­sil fuels.

One rea­son they agree: It’s polit­i­cally more appeal­ing to give away money through a tax credit than it is to impose a car­bon tax that takes money away. A car­bon tax is levied on the car­bon con­tent of hydro­car­bon fuels such as coal, oil or nat­ural gas that emit car­bon diox­ide and it raises prices for prod­ucts such as gaso­line or electricity.

Envi­ron­men­tal­ists are divided on the tax cred­its. Most want to bury cap­tured car­bon diox­ide in geo­log­i­cal for­ma­tions under­ground rather than using it to pro­duce more fos­sil fuels.

We con­cluded that it was not pos­si­ble to square it with our work to end fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies,” said David Hawkins, direc­tor of cli­mate pol­icy at the Nat­ural Resources Defense Coun­cil, which stayed neu­tral on the measure.

But of the 65 mil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide that is pumped under­ground in the United States every year, about 60 mil­lion tons is for enhanced oil recov­ery, said Sally Ben­son, co-​​director of Stan­ford University’s Pre­court Insti­tute for Energy. And demand is growing.

White­house said “at this point, the only rev­enue propo­si­tion for car­bon cap­ture is enhanced oil recovery.”

As angry and frus­trated I am at the behav­ior of these com­pa­nies,” he said, “if that’s what it takes to save the planet I’m will­ing to make that investment.”

And Repub­li­can sen­a­tors joined in the name of “inno­va­tion,” and seemed unboth­ered that by putting a price on the cred­its they were flout­ing the Trump administration’s effort to stymie any form of car­bon tax.

Peo­ple now under­stand the need for address­ing cli­mate change,” Car­bon Engineering’s chief exec­u­tive Steve Old­ham said in an inter­view after tes­ti­fy­ing before a Sen­ate com­mit­tee. “When you don’t have a solu­tion, it’s a scary thought.”

We’re try­ing to get the mes­sage out that there is a solu­tion here,” he added, “and it is not forc­ing every­body to buy a new car or stop tak­ing airplanes.”

Old­ham him­self is a sign that car­bon cap­ture is closer to becom­ing a busi­ness. He only recently took the helm at the 10-​​year-​​old Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, which has built a pro­to­type on a scenic spot near an old lum­ber town about 30 miles north of Van­cou­ver. Old­ham wasn’t an expert on car­bon cap­ture, but he had worked at a big Cana­dian tech com­pany rais­ing money from gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial sources for com­plex projects such as large satel­lites and robotics.

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing “has been R&D focused,” Old­ham said. “Now, they need a dif­fer­ent skill set.”

The Squamish, British Columbia-​​based firm’s early investors included Bill Gates. And Car­bon Engi­neer­ing recently raised $68 mil­lion with invest­ments from tar sands financier and Cal­gary Flames co-​​owner Mur­ray Edwards, Occi­den­tal Petroleum’s Low Car­bon Ven­tures, Chevron Tech­nol­ogy Ven­tures, and BHP, an inter­na­tional min­ing and resources giant.

Old­ham said the firm will use the money to design a full-​​size com­mer­cial plant and that it has already iden­ti­fied fives sites in the United States and two in Canada.

Draw­ing on research at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­gary and Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­sity, Car­bon Engi­neer­ing con­verts car­bon diox­ide into trans­porta­tion fuels. It does that by com­bin­ing CO2 with hydro­gen — cre­at­ing a car­bon neu­tral cycle. That could help oil com­pa­nies meet California’s require­ment to reduce the car­bon inten­sity of motor fuels by 20 per­cent by 2030.

Har­vard Uni­ver­sity engi­neer­ing and pub­lic pol­icy pro­fes­sor David Keith, act­ing chief sci­en­tist and a board mem­ber at Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, esti­mated in a paper last year that using cur­rent know-​​how and exist­ing com­po­nents, the com­pany could cap­ture car­bon diox­ide at $94 to $232 a ton. Even if Car­bon Engineering’s tech­nique is expen­sive, it might still be cheaper than alter­na­tive meth­ods of meet­ing the Cal­i­for­nia standards.

In addi­tion, by pro­duc­ing fuel, Car­bon Engi­neer­ing could make air travel car­bon neu­tral with­out hav­ing to turn to bio­fu­els or elec­tri­fi­ca­tion that would be dif­fi­cult to use in aircraft.

It gives you choices,” Old­ham said.

Clime­works, based in Switzer­land, was founded by two engi­neer­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher. It became the first com­pany to extract CO2 from the air and sell it to a com­mer­cial cus­tomer, albeit on a tiny scale. It sells about 900 tons a year — the equiv­a­lent of emis­sions from 200 cars — to a com­mer­cial green­house near Zurich that grows veg­eta­bles. The com­pany has erected a ver­ti­cal array of 18 fans, each the size of a full-​​grown adult that helps speed the cap­ture process. The CO2 increases the greenhouse’s crop yields by 20 to 30 percent.

Clime­works has also forged an agree­ment to sell car­bon diox­ide to Coca-​​Cola HBC in Switzer­land for sparkling drinks. Eco­nom­ics could drive future deci­sions. Last year Europe suf­fered car­bon diox­ide short­ages when some British fer­til­izer plants that pro­duce CO2 as a byprod­uct unex­pect­edly closed down for main­te­nance and Coke’s CO2 sup­plies were threatened.

Like Global Ther­mo­stat, Clime­works traps CO2 sim­ply by expos­ing a fil­ter to air. The fil­ter con­tains amines, a deriv­a­tive of ammo­nia. Once the fil­ter is sat­u­rated, it is heated with steam past the boil­ing point of 100 degrees Cel­sius, hot enough to free the car­bon diox­ide so it can be pumped into pipes or stor­age tanks. Cur­rently, the Clime­works uses free waste heat from a local incin­er­a­tor, reduc­ing its costs.

Global Ther­mo­stat has a some­what dif­fer­ent model than the other two.

The com­pany is the brain­child of two Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors: Chichilnisky, an econ­o­mist and math­e­mati­cian who took part in the 1990s cli­mate con­fer­ence in Kyoto, and Peter Eisen­berger, an applied physi­cist who has worked at Bell Lab­o­ra­to­ries, Exxon, Prince­ton and now Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity. With his fly­away hair, he bears a pass­ing resem­blance to Dr. Emmett Brown from the film “Back to the Future.”

When Peter and Gra­ciela first talked about this, peo­ple thought it was crazy,” said Miles Sakwa-​​Novak, the plant’s young engi­neer. He says that Car­bon Engi­neer­ing essen­tially takes two mature processes and com­bines them in a new way, but that Global Ther­mo­stat is devel­op­ing some­thing new.

We lit­er­ally farm the sky,” Chichilnisky says in a com­pany video.

The company’s early investors included the Cana­dian tycoon Edgar Bronf­man and the util­ity NRG, one of the biggest U.S. emitters.

The company’s process uses devices called mono­liths that look like sponges to max­i­mize sur­face area. That area is cov­ered with amines, the nitro­gen based chem­i­cal that nat­u­rally absorbs car­bon diox­ide from the air. The mono­liths are sim­i­lar to those used in cat­alytic con­vert­ers and Chichilnisky says that the man­u­fac­turer Corn­ing has pro­vided key materials.

The next step — pry­ing the car­bon diox­ide loose — is harder and more expen­sive. Yet Global Ther­mo­stat only needs to heat up its amine cells to 80 degrees Cel­sius, less than what it takes to boil a cup of tea, lower than its com­peti­tors and thus rel­a­tively cheaper.

This is the dark secret of vir­tu­ally all car­bon cap­ture tech­niques: They tend to use large amounts of energy, which adds to car­bon emis­sions and costs. Some say they can be com­bined with solar instal­la­tions. So far, Car­bon Engi­neer­ing has tapped into cheap Cana­dian hydro power.

Many ana­lysts won­der why the direct air cap­ture com­pa­nies don’t place their devices near the exhaust of a nat­ural gas or coal plant. Chichilnisky explains that some­times lower con­cen­tra­tions work bet­ter, just as gaso­line in a com­bus­tion engine needs oxy­gen. She said that their process requires less energy and works best at con­cen­tra­tions found in the air at 400 parts per mil­lion, 300 times more dif­fuse than in power plant smokestacks.

The com­pact size of the Global Ther­mo­stat project could be part of its appeal, Chichilnisky says. Com­pa­nies with mod­est CO2 needs — such as soft drink bot­tlers or oil field ser­vice firms — can move Global Thermostat’s equip­ment to a site with­out hav­ing to worry about build­ing pipelines. Global Ther­mo­stat is already in talks with a soft drink maker and a major oil company.

Chichilnisky is opti­mistic about Global Ther­mo­stat, but she’s wor­ried car­bon cap­ture will be too lit­tle too late. “The real prob­lem with cli­mate change is time,” she says.

Time and scale. The car­bon cap­ture enter­prises are minus­cule com­pared to the global crisis.

In 2018, mankind pumped about 37.1 giga­tons of car­bon diox­ide into the air. One of Global Thermostat’s con­tainer size units would cap­ture just 4,000 tons; to off­set all global emis­sions would take 9 mil­lion of the units.

Clime­works says it can man­u­fac­ture 100 to 150 CO2 col­lec­tors a year, each one capa­ble of suck­ing up the emis­sions of 250 cars. A unit with six Clime­works fil­ters would fit in a ship­ping con­tainer. In order to meet its goal of cap­tur­ing 1 per­cent of grow­ing global emis­sions, Clime­works would need to fill up 750,000 ship­ping containers.

Argu­ing that is doable, Clime­works notes that it is equal to the num­ber of ship­ping con­tain­ers that pass through Shang­hai har­bor every two weeks.

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing is plan­ning on much big­ger projects, each cost­ing close to $600 mil­lion, about the same as a coal-​​fired power plant. Old­ham esti­mates that it would take 5,000 of his company’s plants to off­set U.S. car­bon emis­sions — 5.3 giga­tons — at a cost of $3 tril­lion. That’s why, he says, “the real answer is a com­bi­na­tion” or cut­ting emis­sions and build­ing car­bon capture.

What that means, Chichilnisky says, is that the fight to reduce emis­sions must con­tinue. The dan­ger of progress on car­bon cap­ture is that peo­ple will see it as a rea­son to relax their efforts.

Until now, car­bon cap­ture has been a bad bet finan­cially. Since 2010, the Energy Depart­ment spent about $1.1 bil­lion to help nine car­bon cap­ture and stor­age demon­stra­tion projects, the Gen­eral Account­abil­ity Office said in a report. Pri­vate indus­try chipped in $610 mil­lion. But most found the cost way too high and aban­doned the projects; only one power plant was still active at the end of 2017, GAO said.

Many coal com­pa­nies see the fed­eral car­bon cred­its as a new lease on their lives. “The coal lobby was always in our office” seek­ing cred­its, said a for­mer Energy Depart­ment offi­cial from the Obama admin­is­tra­tion who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity. But, he said, “car­bon cap­ture and stor­age makes coal more expen­sive, not less.”

Dan Kam­men, pro­fes­sor of energy and pub­lic pol­icy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, says that car­bon cap­ture is divert­ing atten­tion from cheaper and more scal­able ways to tak­ing car­bon diox­ide out of the air.

The prices [of car­bon cap­ture] would have to fall a huge amount for it to be part of our near-​​term port­fo­lio, mean­ing 2050 or sooner,” Kam­men says. Car­bon cap­ture from the air “can be an arrow in the quiver,” he says. But he adds that chang­ing land use and forestry, using known tech­niques for tak­ing CO2 from the air and stor­ing it, “would be the best invest­ment in car­bon cap­ture today.”

I rec­om­mend the bor­ing Char­lie Brown strat­egy,” he says. “When is the best day to plant a tree? Yes­ter­day. Sec­ond best? Today.”

New car­bon cap­ture tech­nol­ogy is “the shiny new object on the table,” he says, but “with the 30-​​year clock more than tick­ing we have to scale up tech­nol­ogy. We absolutely need to invest in car­bon cap­ture because we will have to do a good deal more of it.”

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