News Archive:

Announcement: Assistant Professor position available in Development Engineering with an expected start date of July 1, 2020

Take a look at an excit­ing Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor posi­tion that is avail­able at UC Berke­ley rel­e­vant to much of the work tak­ing place in RAEL:  click here.

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Open Octo­ber 7th, 2019 through Fri­day, Dec 13, 2019 at 11:59pm (Pacific Time)


The Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing and the Blum Cen­ter for Devel­op­ing Economies at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley seek appli­ca­tions for a tenure-​​track fac­ulty posi­tion, at the Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor level in Devel­op­ment Engi­neer­ing with an expected start date of July 1, 2020.

Devel­op­ment Engi­neer­ing is a grow­ing mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary field that inte­grates engi­neer­ing, eco­nom­ics, busi­ness, nat­ural resources, pub­lic health and social sci­ences in order to cre­ate, imple­ment, eval­u­ate and scale new tech­nolo­gies to ben­e­fit peo­ple liv­ing in poverty in devel­op­ing regions and low-​​income areas in the U.S. The goal is to solve big soci­etal prob­lems both glob­ally and locally.

Exam­ple focus areas include, but are not lim­ited to: engi­neer­ing bet­ter health, the nexus of food, energy and water sys­tems, acces­si­ble low-​​cost energy tech­nolo­gies, the dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion of soci­etal sys­tems, cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion, and sus­tain­able design and com­mu­ni­ties. Research in any one of these areas will enable cross-​​campus multi-​​disciplinary col­lab­o­ra­tions for inno­va­tion of scal­able and sus­tain­able tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions to improve the human con­di­tion and lift peo­ple out of poverty, par­tic­u­larly in devel­op­ing economies.

Appli­cants will be hired into a home depart­ment within the Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing: Bio­engi­neer­ing; Civil & Envi­ron­men­tal Engi­neer­ing; Elec­tri­cal Engi­neer­ing & Com­puter Sci­ences; Indus­trial Engi­neer­ing & Oper­a­tions Research; Mate­ri­als Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing; Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer­ing; or Nuclear Engi­neer­ing. More infor­ma­tion on the Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing, and a link to each depart­ment, is avail­able at http://​engi​neer​ing​.berke​ley​.edu/

The suc­cess­ful can­di­date will be expected to con­tribute mean­ing­fully to both their home depart­ment and to the activ­i­ties of the Devel­op­ment Engi­neer­ing Grad­u­ate Group, housed in the Blum Cen­ter for Devel­op­ing Economies. They will be expected to teach courses in both their home depart­ment and the Devel­op­ment Engi­neer­ing Grad­u­ate Group, and have a strong com­mit­ment to excel­lence in research, teach­ing, ser­vice, and con­tri­bu­tions to diver­sity, equity and inclu­sion. The Grad­u­ate Group in Devel­op­ment Engi­neer­ing is get­ting ready to offer a new Pro­fes­sional Mas­ters in Devel­op­ment Engi­neer­ing. It is expected that the new fac­ulty mem­ber selected will par­tic­i­pate in the ped­a­gogy asso­ci­ated with the new Masters.

The Blum Cen­ter for Devel­op­ing Economies lever­ages the tal­ent, enthu­si­asm, and energy of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­nity to address global poverty. The Blum Center’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary problem-​​solving approach draws on stu­dents and fac­ulty ded­i­cated to fac­ing this chal­lenge through inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies, ser­vices, and edu­ca­tion. It cat­alyzes the efforts of the uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity, in part­ner­ship with for-​​profit, non­profit, and gov­ern­ment enti­ties, to develop scal­able and sus­tain­able solu­tions. These mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary approaches are built around new tech­nolo­gies with great poten­tial for low-​​income regions. The Blum Cen­ter invests in promis­ing efforts and shep­herd them to the next stage, engag­ing part­ners out­side the uni­ver­sity inter­ested in bring­ing these inno­va­tions to mil­lions. In addi­tion to host­ing the Devel­op­ment Engi­neer­ing Grad­u­ate Group, the Blum Cen­ter also offers an under­grad­u­ate minor in Global Poverty & Prac­tice and man­ages the Big Ideas con­test that pro­vides fund­ing, sup­port, and encour­age­ment to stu­dents who have “big ideas” for social and entre­pre­neur­ial impact. More infor­ma­tion about the Blum Cen­ter is at: http://​blum​cen​ter​.berke​ley​.edu.

Basic Qual­i­fi­ca­tions: Appli­cants must, at a min­i­mum, be in the process of com­plet­ing a doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion or an equiv­a­lent inter­na­tional degree at the time of application.

Addi­tional Qual­i­fi­ca­tions: The can­di­date should have expe­ri­ence in teach­ing, out­reach and research in devel­op­ment glob­ally or in low-​​income areas of the U.S.

Pre­ferred Qual­i­fi­ca­tions: Hold­ing a doc­tor­ate or equiv­a­lent degree by the start of the posi­tion. The can­di­date should include evi­dence of out­stand­ing schol­ar­ship, the abil­ity to estab­lish and pur­sue a pro­gram of high-​​quality research within a rel­e­vant dis­ci­pline, evi­dence of teach­ing capa­bil­i­ties, and a com­mit­ment to cre­at­ing an inclu­sive environment.

Diver­sity, equity, and inclu­sion are core val­ues in the Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing and the Blum Cen­ter. Our excel­lence can only be fully real­ized by fac­ulty, stu­dents and staff who share our com­mit­ment to these val­ues. Suc­cess­ful can­di­dates for our fac­ulty posi­tions will demon­strate evi­dence of a com­mit­ment to equity and inclu­sion. Finan­cial and in-​​kind resources are avail­able to pur­sue activ­i­ties that help accel­er­ate our efforts to achieve our equity and inclu­sion goals, with the full back­ing of the Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing. Exam­ples of ongo­ing pro­gram­ming at the Col­lege are avail­able at: engi​neer​ing​.berke​ley​.edu/​d​i​v​e​r​s​ity.

Appli­cants should pro­vide three names and con­tact infor­ma­tion for use in obtain­ing pro­fes­sional let­ters of ref­er­ence. Rec­om­menders pro­vid­ing let­ters of ref­er­ence should sub­mit them as early as pos­si­ble, prefer­ably by Decem­ber 13, 2019. Can­di­dates are respon­si­ble for ask­ing their ref­er­ences to upload the let­ters as part of the online appli­ca­tion process. All rec­om­men­da­tion let­ters will be treated as con­fi­den­tial per Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia pol­icy and Cal­i­for­nia state law. Please refer poten­tial letter-​​writers, includ­ing those who may pro­vide let­ters via third party (i.e., dossier ser­vice or career cen­ter), to the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley state­ment of con­fi­den­tial­ity http://​apo​.berke​ley​.edu/​e​v​a​l​l​t​r​.​h​tml) prior to sub­mit­ting their letters.

The dead­line for appli­ca­tions is Decem­ber 13, 2019 and appli­ca­tions received after the dead­line will not be con­sid­ered. Can­di­dates will be reviewed on an ongo­ing basis, and early appli­ca­tion is rec­om­mended. Please direct ques­tions to the Chair of the Search Com­mit­tee at blum-​search@​berkeley.​edu. Appli­ca­tions should be sub­mit­ted elec­tron­i­cally at: https://​apre​cruit​.berke​ley​.edu/​a​p​p​l​y​/​J​P​F​0​2​360.

The Col­lege is also com­mit­ted to address­ing the fam­ily needs of fac­ulty, includ­ing dual career cou­ples and sin­gle par­ents. For more infor­ma­tion please visit: https://​ofew​.berke​ley​.edu/​n​e​w​-​f​a​c​u​lty.

The Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia is an Equal Opportunity/​Affirmative Action Employer. All qual­i­fied appli­cants will receive con­sid­er­a­tion for employ­ment with­out regard to race, color, reli­gion, sex, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­tity, national ori­gin, dis­abil­ity, age or pro­tected vet­eran sta­tus. For the
com­plete Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia nondis­crim­i­na­tion and affir­ma­tive action pol­icy see:
http://​pol​icy​.ucop​.edu/​d​o​c​/​4​0​0​0​3​7​6​/​N​o​n​d​i​s​c​r​i​m​A​f​f​i​r​m​Act (link is external).

For admin­is­tra­tive ques­tions regard­ing the posi­tion, please con­tact: Julie Allen (COE Aca­d­e­mic Per­son­nel Ana­lyst) at: jallen@​berkeley.​edu, 510–642-2612.


Berke­ley, CA


Doc­u­ment requirements

Ref­er­ence requirements
  • 3–5 let­ters of ref­er­ence required

Kammen disputes the veracity of Jonathan Franzen’s essay on climate change.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished on the KQED news & dis­cus­sion pages, Sept 10, 2019.

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The cli­mate apoc­a­lypse is com­ing and there’s noth­ing we can do to stop it.

At least that’s the the­sis of writer Jonathan Franzen, whose recent essay in The New Yorker, titled “What if We Stopped Pre­tend­ing?,” tapped into a fear about a cli­mate apoc­a­lypse that many peo­ple are grap­pling with.

But in the wake of Franzen’s piece, pub­lished on the magazine’s web­site Sun­day, cli­mate sci­en­tists, advo­cates and jour­nal­ists quickly took to social media to pick apart his inter­pre­ta­tion of the cur­rent sci­en­tific out­look, and his fram­ing of the world’s goal of reduc­ing car­bon emis­sions to the point of staving off global cat­a­stro­phe, as prac­ti­cally impossible.

Franzen writes:

The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essen­tially no progress toward reach­ing it. Today, the sci­en­tific evi­dence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of wit­ness­ing the rad­i­cal desta­bi­liza­tion of life on earth—massive crop fail­ures, apoc­a­lyp­tic fires, implod­ing economies, epic flood­ing, hun­dreds of mil­lions of refugees flee­ing regions made unin­hab­it­able by extreme heat or per­ma­nent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guar­an­teed to wit­ness it.

Crit­ics of the piece were quick to assert that Franzen’s argu­ment is based upon mis­read­ing reports from the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change and promi­nent sci­en­tific jour­nals like Nature.

A par­tic­u­lar stick­ing point for some was Franzen’s asser­tion that roughly two degrees Cel­sius of warm­ing above prein­dus­trial lev­els rep­re­sents a tip­ping point that will push the Earth past the point of no return.

Sean Hecht is the co-​​director of the Emmett Insti­tute on Cli­mate Change and the Envi­ron­ment at UCLA Law School:

Daniel Kam­men, a UC Berke­ley cli­mate physi­cist and co-​​author of pre­vi­ous IPCC reports, who also served as sci­ence envoy for the U.S. Depart­ment of State under Pres­i­dent Obama, says the real­ity is not that black and white. “No one has a pre­cise year, has a pre­cise num­ber, that if you exceed this all hope is lost,” he said. “That is just not the sci­en­tific fact.”

It’s just really unfor­tu­nate because it doesn’t reflect any of the cur­rent sci­ence. It’s as if he ignored the com­ments of the IPCC. reports,” Kam­men said. “This piece clearly got no fact checking.”

Franzen argues that in order to col­lec­tively make a go at avert­ing all-​​out dis­as­ter, “The first con­di­tion is that every one of the world’s major pol­lut­ing coun­tries insti­tute dra­con­ian con­ser­va­tion mea­sures, shut down much of its energy and trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture, and com­pletely retool its econ­omy. He adds: “Call me a pes­simist or call me a human­ist, but I don’t see human nature fun­da­men­tally chang­ing any­time soon.”

But, Kam­men says, it’s far from a given that one-​​and-​​a-​​half or two-​​degrees of warm­ing is unpreventable.

While the U.S. is ignor­ing this, the rest of the world is pro­ceed­ing,” Kam­men said. And within the U.S., he pointed out, Cal­i­for­nia, New York and New Mex­ico are mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant  progress in reduc­ing green­house gases.

With advances in elec­tric vehi­cles, solar and wind power, and energy stor­age, Kam­men said,  “the tech­nol­ogy base to make it hap­pen is there.”

Franzen’s essay does make a case for the ben­e­fits of reduc­ing the world’s car­bon footprint.

Even if we can no longer hope to be saved from two degrees of warm­ing,” he wrote, “there’s still a strong prac­ti­cal and eth­i­cal case for reduc­ing car­bon emissions.”

Post­pon­ing what may be inevitable and mit­i­gat­ing the fall­out of cli­mate col­lapse are worth­while pur­suits, he says. As are invest­ing in com­mu­ni­ties, local farm­ing and con­ser­va­tion. But he also argues against putting all of our col­lec­tive eggs (i.e., pre­cious resources and hope) in a long-​​shot war against car­bon when other, more address­able prob­lems, such as water deple­tion and the overuse of pes­ti­cides, merit attention.

Franzen writes that, “a false hope of sal­va­tion can be actively harm­ful.” Per­sonal ini­tia­tives like bik­ing to work and vot­ing green, he says, may lure the pub­lic into a state of “com­pla­cency.” Instead, he argues, we should be prepar­ing for life in a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent — and hot­ter — future, where wild­fires and floods per­sist and the threat of desta­bi­liza­tion looms over civ­i­liza­tion.

Doom and Gloom

Some of Franzen’s crit­ics say the kind of apoc­a­lyp­tic rhetoric he employs can be dangerous.

All the dis­cus­sions of doom and gloom have not led to change we need,” said Rob Jack­son, chair of Stan­ford University’s Earth Sys­tems Sci­ence Depart­ment. “It almost relieves us of respon­si­bil­ity. If an apoc­a­lypse is inevitable, why should I do any­thing to stave it off, to min­i­mize it’s effects? It reduces actions, rather than enhanc­ing action.”

While Jack­son says he thinks Franzen is cor­rect to point out that we need to bet­ter pre­pare for a chang­ing world, “We are not locked into a Mad Max world.”

The fall­out from cli­mate change is on a con­tin­uum, he says, and “Every tenth of a degree mat­ters. Every tenth of a degree increases the chances of run­away per­mafrost melt and methane release. Every tenth of a degree will increase the amount of ice melt and sea level rise we face over the next millennium.”

We don’t know where all the tip­ping points are. A two degree thresh­old is an arbi­trary thresh­old. The far­ther we go, the more likely we make it that cat­a­strophic things will happen.”

But Franzen is right that cli­mate is an exis­ten­tial thread, Jack­son said, “so we should vote and act like it.”

Not every­one thought Frazen’s argu­ments were so off base. In an arti­cle pub­lished Mon­day by Mother Jones, Kevin Drum points out that while the use of renew­able energy sources is on the rise — up from 19 to 22 per­cent of the world’s energy capac­ity since 1990 — so is our depen­dence on fos­sil fuels.

All told, our reliance on fos­sil fuels has increased from 62 per­cent to 65 per­cent,” Drum wrote. “We haven’t even man­aged to sta­bi­lize car­bon emis­sions, let alone reduce them.”

But Drum continues:

Franzen’s pre­scrip­tion is wrong: we shouldn’t give up hope. Suc­cess is still pos­si­ble, even if it’s hardly cer­tain. How­ever, his assess­ment of human nature is some­thing to be taken seri­ously and it should illu­mi­nate the way we approach cli­mate change. Work­ing with human nature is far more likely to pro­duce results than fight­ing it, and that means find­ing new ways to make green energy cheap and plen­ti­ful instead of fruit­lessly plead­ing with peo­ple to use less of it.


Climate Change, hurricanes make the affordable housing crisis even worse

\Teresa Wiltz, USA Today, for the orig­i­nal, click here.

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Last year, right before Hur­ri­cane Flo­rence hit New Bern, a small river­front city along the North Car­olina coast, Mar­tin Blaney rushed to the pub­lic hous­ing com­plex he runs, bang­ing on doors, yelling: “Evac­u­ate, evac­u­ate, evacuate!”

When the winds set­tled and the rains ended in New Bern, Blaney’s nearby offices were under 6 feet of water. Even worse: Nearly half of New Bern’s pub­lic hous­ing stock – 108 build­ings, all in a flood zone, out of 218 – was under water, too. Twelve build­ings were dam­aged beyond repair. (A nearby pub­lic hous­ing com­plex for seniors, located above the flood zones, was unscathed.)

We didn’t know the destruc­tive force of deep water,” said Blaney, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Hous­ing Author­ity of the City of New Bern. “It blew us away.

All of a sud­den, you’ve got 108 house­holds that need to have a roof over their head.”

Hur­ri­cane sea­son in full swing

Hur­ri­cane sea­son is under­way – and storms that make land­fall might fur­ther exac­er­bate the nation’s short­age of afford­able hous­ing, hous­ing experts say. A new report by Har­vard University’s Joint Cen­ter for Hous­ing Stud­ies said find­ing enough money to make hous­ing stur­dier and fix the dam­age done by increas­ingly fre­quent and severe storms is “an urgent hous­ing chal­lenge for the nation.”



Patricia Hidalgo-​​Gonzalez named Siebel Energy Scholar!

Con­grat­u­la­tions to Patri­cia Hidalgo-​​Gonzalez, who was names a 2019 — 2020 Siebel Energy Scholar!


The Siebel Schol­ars pro­gram was estab­lished by the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foun­da­tion in 2000 to rec­og­nize the most tal­ented stu­dents at the world’s lead­ing grad­u­ate schools of busi­ness, com­puter sci­ence, bio­engi­neer­ing, and energy sci­ence. Each year, more than 90 grad­u­ate stu­dents at the top of their class are selected dur­ing their final year of stud­ies based on out­stand­ing aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance and lead­er­ship to receive a $35,000 award toward their final year of stud­ies. Today, our active com­mu­nity of over 1,200 Siebel Schol­ars serves as advi­sors to the Siebel Foun­da­tion and works col­lab­o­ra­tively to find solu­tions to society’s most press­ing problems.

NSF SUPERB student Francesca Giardine presents summer RAEL project work

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National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion SUPERB (Sum­mer Under­grad­u­ate Pro­gram In Engi­neer­ing ⁦at Berke­ley)⁩ scholar Francesca Gia­r­dine worked with Den­nis Best in RAEL on clean energy for under-​​served com­mu­ni­ties for the 2019 Sum­mer.  Here she is pre­sent­ing her research.


IMG_6929Have a great year back at Smith College!


July Was the Hottest Month Ever Recorded

For the orig­i­nal: click here: https://​www​.kqed​.org/​s​c​i​e​n​c​e​/​1​9​4​6​2​1​9​/​j​u​l​y​-​w​a​s​-​t​h​e​-​h​o​t​t​e​s​t​-​m​o​n​t​h​-​e​v​e​r​-​r​e​c​o​r​ded.

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In the lat­est sign the Earth is under­go­ing unprece­dented warm­ing, Euro­pean sci­en­tists said Mon­day that July was the hottest month ever recorded.

While July is usu­ally the warmest month of the year for the globe, accord­ing to our data it also was the warmest month recorded glob­ally, by a very small mar­gin,” Jean-​​Noël Thé­paut, head of the Euro­pean Union’s Coper­ni­cus Cli­mateChange Ser­vice, said in a statement.

Last week, cit­ing the lat­est data, United Nations Sec­re­tary Gen­eral António Guter­res told reporters that the world is fac­ing a “cli­mate emer­gency.”  He noted the July num­bers were even more sig­nif­i­cant because the pre­vi­ous record-​​beating month, July 2016, occurred dur­ing one of the strongest El Nino’s on record. The weather phe­nom­e­non, which causes more storm sys­tems to form, also tends to con­tribute to higher temperatures.

We have always lived through hot sum­mers,” Guter­res said. “But this is not the sum­mer of our youth. This is not your grandfather’s summer.”

In a news release, the sci­en­tists at Coper­ni­cus framed July’s heat against the goals out­lined in the Paris cli­mate agree­ment, which aims to keep the increase in global aver­age tem­per­a­tures less than 3.6 degrees Fahren­heit (2 degrees Cel­sius) above prein­dus­trial levels.

Even at that those increased tem­per­a­tures, the effects on Earth’s envi­ron­ment would be dra­matic, includ­ing ris­ing sea lev­els and more fre­quent droughts and famines.

The July tem­per­a­ture was close to 2.2 degrees Fahren­heit (1.2 degrees Cel­sius) above those in the prein­dus­trial era. Since then, the Earth has warmed about 1.8 degrees Fahren­heit, accord­ing to  the United Nations Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change.

Much of Europe baked in a bru­tal heat wave this sum­mer. In Green­land, where tem­per­a­tures are 10 to 15 degrees F above aver­age, 10 bil­lion tons of ice is melt­ing into the ocean daily.

This is exactly what the cli­mate mod­els pre­dict,” said Daniel Kam­men, a UC Berke­ley pro­fes­sor who chairs the school’s Energy and Resources Group.

The state’s res­i­dent s are already see­ing the impacts of global warm­ing in more fre­quent and intense wild­fires. Res­i­dents also have higher med­ical and energy costs as they use more air con­di­tion­ing, Kam­men says, and farm­ers are tak­ing a hit as they attempt to cope with new weather con­di­tions. The expense is mostly being shoul­dered by low-​​income peo­ple who can  least afford it, said Kammen.

We are see­ing the social dis­rup­tion right here in the Bay Area, not just some remote story about 122-​​degree days in India,” he said. “It is very close to home.”

Kam­men says the new data under­scores the impor­tance of mov­ing away from fos­sil fuels as an energy source, which would pre­vent the worst effects of cli­mate change.

It can still be done, and Cal­i­for­nia can con­tribute, he says.  Already,  offi­cials have com­mit­ted the state to renew­able energy and climate-​​friendly poli­cies such as the cap-​​and-​​trade sys­tem and a man­date for solar energy capa­bil­ity in the con­struc­tion of new homes, Kam­men says. But he thinks the state can do more, like build­ing homes around mass tran­sit and imple­ment­ing farm­ing tech­niques that use less fer­til­izer, pes­ti­cides and water.

And he wants to see “a real­is­tic plan for the most car-​​intensive state in the nation to switch us all to elec­tric and hydro­gen vehi­cles. That has to be next on California’s agenda.”

Carbon capture: boom or boondoggle?

For US News & World Report, click here.

by Alan Neuhauser

WHEN A CANADIAN STARTUP announced this spring that it would soon begin build­ing a new type of facil­ity that could remove car­bon diox­ide from the air, it sparked con­sid­er­able fanfare.

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Head­lines declared the project, which this spring won $68 mil­lion in financ­ing, a “poten­tial solu­tion to global warm­ing.” The design, the brain­child of an acclaimed Har­vard physics pro­fes­sor and Time mag­a­zine “Hero of the Envi­ron­ment,” won back­ing from Bill Gates.

The­o­ret­i­cally, such a facil­ity could work vir­tu­ally any­where, extract­ing harm­ful green­house gases from the air on a mas­sive scale. But the con­cept was embraced early on by oil com­pa­nies, which quickly saw the pos­si­bil­ity of lib­er­at­ing the drilling and extrac­tion process from com­plaints about the emis­sions it gen­er­ates. In fact, the plant under con­struc­tion is being built in the heart of Texas oil coun­try, in part­ner­ship with a sub­sidiary of one of the largest oil firms in the U.S., Occi­den­tal Petro­leum. Occi­den­tal was one of three oil con­glom­er­ates to make siz­able invest­ments in the company.

The idea behind the facil­ity, called car­bon cap­ture, isn’t new: It’s been in use for years at a hand­ful of coal-​​fired power plants, oil and gas pro­cess­ing facil­i­ties and fer­til­izer plants in the U.S. The old­est oper­at­ing site began vac­u­um­ing CO2 from a nat­ural gas plant in 1972. Trees, which suck up CO2, could also be described as engag­ing in nat­ural car­bon capture.

What makes the Texas project dif­fer­ent, though, is its promise to remove car­bon diox­ide through “direct air cap­ture:” Rather than draw­ing CO2 from a smoke­stack, it instead pulls the gas from the open air regard­less of loca­tion or even the gas’s con­cen­tra­tion. Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, the com­pany behind the project, says that with lit­tle more than off-​​the-​​shelf industrial-​​scale fans, fil­ters and com­mon chem­i­cals, it’s solved a chal­lenge long seen as beyond the reach of engi­neers or any rea­son­able budget.

The idea of pulling CO2 out of the air has been around for 40–50 years, but what’s the chal­lenge is doing it at scale in a cost-​​effective man­ner,” says Steve Old­ham, the CEO of Car­bon Engi­neer­ing. “Hope­fully we have the answer to that.”

In gen­eral, air cap­ture and stor­age on a mean­ing­ful scale is a far tougher prob­lem than CO2 cap­ture at power plants and indus­trial facil­i­ties,” says Edward Rubin, an envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Carnegie Mel­lon University’s Wilton E. Scott Insti­tute for Energy Inno­va­tion. “Much harder to find the nee­dle in a haystack that’s 300 times big­ger – hence, much more costly.”

Another pro­fes­sor put it more bluntly. “A lot of num­bers being thrown out there today are just unbe­liev­able,” says Howard Her­zog, a senior research engi­neer at the MIT Engi­neer Ini­tia­tive. “From what I’ve read, I’ve seen so many red flags that I’m totally shocked.”

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing insists that its tech­nol­ogy works. The car­bon diox­ide its Texas plant col­lects will be injected and stored under­ground, mak­ing the entire loop carbon-​​negative, the com­pany says. By its cal­cu­la­tions, the Texas plant will remove 500 kilo­tons of CO2 per year from the atmos­phere – the equiv­a­lent of plant­ing and nour­ish­ing some 20 mil­lion trees.

Basi­cally you have a carbon-​​neutral fos­sil fuel,” Old­ham says. “We have extracted from the air, in advance, an amount of CO2 that is more than the CO2 pro­duced when you burn that crude.”

The design is “decep­tively straight­for­ward,” he says. The CO2 binds with a liq­uid chem­i­cal, the mix­ture then pushed through a fil­ter. Car­bon Engi­neer­ing has been test­ing the approach since 2015, when a pilot facil­ity at its head­quar­ters out­side Van­cou­ver began pulling up to a met­ric ton per day of CO2 from the air. The planned site in Texas will aim to cap­ture 500,000 met­ric tons a year, the com­pany says – and, with expan­sions, per­haps as much as 1 million.

I actu­ally used to work in satel­lites, so I can actu­ally say it’s not rocket sci­ence,” Old­ham says. “Our tech­nol­ogy has always been designed for scal­a­bil­ity. It’s a ques­tion of repeat­ing the same plant many times.”

The goal, he says, is to buy time: To stave off the worst con­se­quences of cli­mate change as elec­tric vehi­cles make inroads and solar pan­els, wind tur­bines and – more recently – bat­tery stor­age expand and replace the coal, gas and oil plants that remain entrenched in the world’s elec­tric grids.

We are not in a posi­tion as a soci­ety today to move off fos­sil fuels. So from an envi­ron­men­tal per­spec­tive, we think this is worth doing,” Old­ham says.

The idea has found out­side sup­port. In a study this week in the jour­nal Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, for exam­ple, a team of Euro­pean sci­en­tists con­cluded that while tech­nolo­gies like those being devel­oped by Car­bon Engi­neer­ing should “be devel­oped and deployed along­side, rather than instead of, other mit­i­ga­tion options,” they’re still worth pursuing.

But con­cern remains that such tech­nol­ogy could actu­ally enable the con­tin­ued use of fos­sil fuels rather than serve as a bridge to phas­ing them out. Occi­den­tal also plans to har­ness the gas cap­tured by its new plant for what’s known as “enhanced oil recov­ery,” where CO2 is injected into deposits to make the company’s drilling oper­a­tions even more pro­duc­tive. The com­pany is the biggest employer of enhanced oil recov­ery in the U.S.

There is also the issue of scale: Humans last year gen­er­ated a record 36.2 giga­tons of car­bon diox­ide – each giga­ton 1,000 times the size of just one of the 500 kilo­tons that the Car­bon Engi­neer­ing plant aims to remove. Remov­ing the CO2 from just 2018 alone would require plant­ing close to a tril­lion trees. The Car­bon Engi­neer­ing plant, by com­par­i­son, would need to be repli­cated some 40,000 times – and even then, only if car­bon emis­sions lev­eled off, which is far from certain.

CO2 neg­a­tive – yeah, right. It’s a big sham … There’s no proof that there’s actu­ally any­thing cap­tured by anything.”

Am I say­ing we should build 40,000 of our plants? God, I hope not, because that will mean we’ve failed in a lot of other mea­sures,” Old­ham says. But, he con­tin­ues, “it’s less than there are water treat­ment plants, it’s less than there are power sta­tions – it’s not totally ridicu­lous think­ing about build­ing that many. I hope that we don’t have to, but if we do, our com­pany wants to have that tech­nol­ogy ready.”

Other experts insist that no mat­ter how many plants Car­bon Engi­neer­ing licenses or builds, the com­pany will never accom­plish what it claims – and, in fact, may sim­ply gen­er­ate more emis­sions. Car­bon removal, at least as pro­posed by Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, as well as by two com­peti­tors in Alabama and Switzer­land, remains firmly in the realm of alchemy, they argue, with one pro­fes­sor com­par­ing the company’s claims and result­ing fan­fare to Ther­a­nos, the startup that attracted bil­lions of dol­lars in invest­ment and press atten­tion by claim­ing to remake blood-​​testing, but whose founders were later indicted on fed­eral fraud charges.

Car­bon Engineering’s planned project, he con­tends, sim­ply will not accom­plish what the com­pany has claimed: It requires so much energy – gen­er­ated by burn­ing nat­ural gas – that any­where from a third to three quar­ters of the CO2 the plant cap­tures will effec­tively end up back into the atmos­phere, Jacob­son says. The claim that CO2 injected under­ground will remain there, mean­while, has yet to be proven at scale, he argues.

There’s no proof that there’s actu­ally any­thing cap­tured by any­thing,” Jacob­son says. “It’s a gim­mick that actu­ally does not work.”

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing main­tains that its plans call for cap­tur­ing any emis­sions from the nat­ural gas plant. But while other aca­d­e­mics have taken issue with Jacobson’s math, but they agree that his con­clu­sions are correct.

On this point we agree: The num­bers as far as how much Car­bon Engi­neer­ing and the Swiss com­pany can cap­ture – they are wrong,” says Dan Kam­men, a physi­cist and pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of California-​​Berkeley.

Their assump­tions about how much energy they’re going to need are way under­es­ti­mated. I don’t even think they under­stand they have a prob­lem. I don’t think they’ll ever get the com­mer­cial plant to work.”

Car­bon Engineering’s planned Texas site wouldn’t be the first ambi­tious, large-​​scale car­bon cap­ture facil­ity in the U.S. In 2010, South­ern Com­pany, one of the country’s largest elec­tric util­i­ties, broke ground for a new coal-​​fired power plant in Mis­sis­sippi, one that would inte­grate car­bon cap­ture to prove the via­bil­ity of so-​​called “clean coal.” Seven years later, the Kem­per project was $5 bil­lion over bud­get, the sub­ject of a Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion inves­ti­ga­tion and mul­ti­ple law­suits, and South­ern Com­pany pulled the plug. The plant now burns nat­ural gas.

They spent $7 bil­lion to prove them­selves – and this is not a startup com­pany, this is one of the two biggest util­i­ties in the U.S. They have their own engi­neer­ing force. But they so over­es­ti­mated this, they lost bil­lions of dol­lars,” Her­zog says. “It’s easy to fool your­self if you want to believe and you don’t want to take a hard engi­neer­ing look at it.”

The Kem­per project, he points out, was designed to be about 220 times larger than a pilot ver­sion of the planned carbon-​​capture facil­ity. The Car­bon Engi­neer­ing site, by con­trast, is a 2,500-fold leap.

These are giant jumps,” Her­zog says. “So, as an engi­neer – this is crazy, alright?”

Car­bon Engi­neer­ing hasn’t put a price tag on its Texas project; a spokes­woman says that “financ­ing for the project will likely be in the hun­dreds of mil­lions.” The com­pany mean­while says that it’s aware that such a large leap in scale from its pilot plant to the one planned for Texas presents sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. The study in Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­cluded that scale – not cost – prob­a­bly presents the biggest hur­dle to the technology’s success.

Every­body acknowl­edges that risk, includ­ing Car­bon Engi­neer­ing. We don’t hide from that risk at all,” Old­ham says. He vig­or­ously dis­puted the pro­fes­sors’ other cri­tiques. “We’ve refined and updated and opti­mized our process sig­nif­i­cantly. To my knowl­edge, none of these peo­ple have come and actu­ally talked to the com­pany. Come and invite them, they’re all invited to our facil­ity, they can come and see our sys­tems work­ing, we have pro­duced finan­cial mod­els … the due dili­gence that we’ve done – come and look at it all. There’s noth­ing to hide here.”


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