To reduce, reuse, store, recycle, remove

Over the last year, I’ve been putting early stage technology and natural efforts that can capture, use, store and not emit carbon dioxide (CO2) on a list. I write about a handful of them in a monthly newsletter stating what they do and why I picked them. I’ve made (and bent) the rules as I go along, looking to sharpen my acumen as an analyst and raise the profile about lesser known climate innovations with a unique value proposition, a good carbon lifecycle, a solid foundation upon which to scale, and a certain je ne sais quoi. For the most part, I focus on carbon management – the broad and poorly-defined field that includes anything that can capture, reduce, use, store, or remove CO2. The types of selections can fall into the following categories:

  • Emissions reductions = Anything that can reduce emissions along the energy supply chain. Sometimes there are cool emissions reductions technologies that will scale in the same way that other decarbonizing technologies will.
  • Carbon utilization = Technologies that can use CO2 from centralized emissions. One day, these technologies might get their CO2 from the atmosphere, but for now they get it from a centralized source.
  • Carbon storage = Technologies that store CO2 from centralized emissions, including geothermal energy.
  • Carbon recycling = direct air capture approaches that recycle carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through fuels,  greenhouses, carbonated drinks.
  • Carbon removal = Any natural, industrial or hybrid approach that can permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmospheric and oceanic circulation.This is the end game of climate change; if we can’t figure out how to deploy this portfolio of solutions at scale, then it is impossible to balance the budget.

I recently taught a class at NYU and used this graphic to talk about pathways for using carbon dioxide, which encapsulates the last four bullet points:

This graphic is a lot to take in. It basically covers the entire carbon economy with industrial CO2 which will include natural (i.e. already geologically sequestered but compressed in pressurized dome), or from centralized emissions (i.e. a process that range from burning natural gas, coal, to making steel and concrete to other industrial sources), or directly from the atmosphere. The economy can exceed over one trillion dollars annually. I like to keep the lens of “The Carbon A List” as broad as possible because there are overlaps in some capturing, using, and storing CO2 from a centralized emission or from the atmosphere. Yet there are some very clear differences, and in a world competing for scare resources and attention in the global effort to reverse climate change, it’s important to get a couple things right.

The pathway of using carbon must be set on one that balances the carbon budget

I have written previously about my cynicism of the Carbon Capture and Storage industry and an experience that convinced me that utilities wouldn’t change from within. In 2015, at a Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage conference, I experienced a similar vein from a presenter who represented BETO – the Bioenergy Technologies Office of the Department of Energy.

“…and let’s remember that the reason that we’re here is to make use of carbon dioxide so that we can keep burning fossil fuels”

When it was my turn to present about direct air capture and the work of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions I took my cue to jump on that comment; which proceeded to ignite some fireworks for the remainder of the conference. I asked:

“Are we here to extend the lifetime of fossil fuels? Or is it to get good at using carbon dioxide so that we can live in a carbon neutral and then negative economy?”

The source of carbon dioxide matters

The vast majority of merchant carbon dioxide that people buy today comes from refining ammonia or from natural sources. The process of capturing it is relatively simple because the concentration is high. Companies like Linde or Praxair will then bottle it, pipe it, or ship it. Carbon dioxide can also be freely released from fermentation processes, providing a cheap feedstock for users of CO2. To the right is a picture of photobioreactors that are producing pharmaceuticals using algae using CO2 from a nearby vodka fermentation process. This integration shows CO2 comes from many places, and further to that it may make sense to not come from fossil at all. A couple more points to keep in mind when thinking about source of carbon:

  • Costs are dominated by how far the CO2 has to travel, the more it costs. In areas where it is cheaply available
  • Beverage grade CO2 can come from the atmosphere without the impurities that would come with a power plant
  • It is absurd that it is still possible to take naturally sequestered carbon dioxide and use it for enhanced oil recovery to sell carbon credits

Be honest about storing carbon in materials

At least 5% of CO2 emissions comes from the cement industry. More than half of the total emissions come from converting limestone (CaCO3) into Calcium Oxide (CaO), the main ingredient for cement, which releases CO2. No concrete company can be completely carbon neutral without first negating this factor.  Only with direct air capture could any concrete or any carbonate truly call itself carbon negative, but would need to account for the additional energy consumed in the process while also negating the full life cycle.

What about fuels?

The fate of liquid hydrocarbons is up in the air. Clearly, we can’t just stop drilling for gasoline. Or could we? If fossils are burned to produce the CO2 to make a fuel you have something that can claim the credit for replacing gasoline, but it can never be a truly carbon neutral for fuel. The only carbon neutral liquid hydrocarbons are those that use some direct source to extract carbon dioxide as their feedstock and also use carbon free energy.

We need to prepare for a world where carbon capture doesn’t work

The assumptions that power plants will be easily retrofitted with carbon capture and storage is far fetched. Only demonstration projects that were heavily subsidized worked. The industry has pushed to appear ready to commercialize but has not even come close to delivering. Coal plants were designed to burn an incredibly cheap resource and are inherently inefficient. It will require new designs entirely and the existing fleet of power plants will need to be retired.

 So let’s start with the hardest and most important: Carbon Removal

Even if we shut off all fossil fuel plants, greenhouse gases would still accumulate in the atmosphere, adding to the total stock and worsening climate change. We’ve already shot past our budget, and need to reverse it 750 billion tons. Without the ability to pull back quickly and responsibly we are, in plain English, screwed. We don’t need to be. People and companies are showing a willingness to pay for their waste, and solutions ranging from natural to industrial to remove carbon exist. This is why I am only focused on carbon removal and building an elegant solution that treats all carbon removed as equal. If anyone is going to burn fossil fuels and emit carbon then they should be able to pay to negate it with an easy transaction. Above all else we need to reverse climate change by balancing the total stock of CO2 in the atmosphere which can only be done with carbon removal. With the emergence of blockchain technologies we are at a unique moment in time to build an industry of the future.

I am beyond pumped to publically announce that my company’s name is Nori and that we recently won the Consensys backed blockchain for social impact hackathon. As we move forward, while I have been informed by industrial, more specifically direct air capture approaches to carbon removal, I realize that the key today is to pay attention to the land and build an elegant solution that allows for measurements of and payments for taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting into the plants and soil.

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Also published on Medium.

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