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What it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal

What it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal

Two companies have started to design what could become Europe’s largest direct air capture plant, capable of capturing up to one million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and burying it deep under the floor from the North Sea.

The sequestered climate pollution will be sold in the form of carbon credits, reflecting the growing demand for carbon removal as nations and businesses develop net zero emissions plans that rely heavily, directly or indirectly, on the use of carbon. ‘trees, machines or other means to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Climate scientists say the world may need billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide removal each year by mid-century to tackle “residual emissions” (from things like aviation and agriculture) that we won’t be able to affordably clean by then – and to turn the climate back. extremely dangerous levels of warming.

The critical and unanswered question, however, is how much direct air capture will cost and whether businesses and countries will decide they can afford it.

The facility proposed by the two companies, Carbon Engineering and Storegga Geotechnologies, will likely be located in the north-east of Scotland, allowing it to take advantage of abundant renewable energy and deliver the captured carbon dioxide. to nearby offshore sites, the companies said. It is expected to go live by 2026.

“We can’t stop every [source of] emissions, ”says Steve Oldham, managing director of Carbon Engineering, which is based in British Columbia. “It’s too difficult, too expensive and too disruptive. This is where carbon removal comes in. We see more and more that this is going to be essential.

Reach $ 100 per tonne

Oldham refuses to say how much the companies plan to charge for the carbon removal, and says they do not yet know the costs per tonne they will realize with the European plant.

But he’s confident that it will eventually meet the target cost levels for direct air capture identified in a 2018 Joule analysis led by Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith. He put the range between $ 94 and $ 232 a tonne once the technology reached commercial scale.

Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering
COURTESY: CARBON ENGINEERING

Reaching $ 100 a tonne is essentially the point of economic viability, as large U.S. customers typically pay $ 65 to $ 110 for carbon dioxide used commercially, according to a little-noticed May article by Habib Azarabadi and the pioneer of the direct capture by air Klaus Lackner. , both at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University. (The $ 100 does not include the separate but considerably lower cost of carbon sequestration.)

At this point, direct air capture could become a reasonably cost effective way to deal with the 10-20% of emissions that will remain too difficult or expensive to remove, and could even compete with the cost of capturing carbon dioxide before it is released. ‘he does not leave the electricity. factories and factories, say the authors.

But the best guess is that the industry is far from that level today. In 2019, Swiss direct aerial capture company Climeworks said its costs were around $ 500-600 per tonne.

What it will take to reach that $ 100 threshold is to build a whole bunch of factories, Azarabadi and Lackner found.

Specifically, the study estimates – based on the “learning rates” of high-performance technologies or how quickly costs have fallen as their manufacturing capacity increased – that the direct capture industry of air will need to grow by a factor of just over 300 in order to reach costs of $ 100 per tonne. Getting there may require total federal subsidies of no more than $ 50 million to $ 2 billion, to cover the difference between actual costs and market rates for base carbon dioxide.

Lackner says the key question is whether their study applied the right learning curves to successful technologies like solar power – where costs fell by about a factor of 10 when the scale was multiplied by 1,000. – or if direct air capture falls into a rarer category of technologies where greater learning does not quickly reduce costs.

“A few hundred million dollars invested in cutting costs could indicate whether this is a good or bad assumption,” he said in an email.

Dream Catcher

The UK has laid out a plan to phase out its emissions by 2050 that will require the removal of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide to balance the sources of emissions that may continue to produce pollution. The government has started providing millions of dollars to develop a variety of technical approaches to help it achieve these goals, including approximately $ 350,000 to the Carbon Engineering and Storegga effort, nicknamed Project Dreamcatcher.

The plant will probably be located near the so-called Acorn project developed by Storegga’s Scottish subsidiary, Pale Blue Dot Energy. The project is to produce hydrogen from natural gas extracted from the North Sea, while capturing the emissions released in the process. The project would also reallocate existing oil and gas infrastructure at the northeastern tip of Scotland to transport carbon dioxide, which would be injected into sites below the seabed.

The proposed direct air capture plant could leverage the same infrastructure for its carbon dioxide storage, Oldham says.

The companies initially plan to build a facility capable of capturing 500,000 tonnes per year, but could potentially double the scale given market demand. Even the low end would far outstrip Europe’s largest current installation, Climeworks’ Orca installation in Iceland, which is expected to remove 4,000 tonnes per year. Only a handful of other small-scale factories have been built in the world.

The expected capacity of the Scotland plant is essentially the same as that of Carbon Engineering’s other full-size plant, planned in Texas. It will also start out as a half-million-ton-per-year factory with the potential to grow to a million. Construction of this plant is expected to start early next year and is expected to start operating in 2024.

However, much of the carbon dioxide captured at this facility will be used for what’s known as enhanced oil recovery: the gas will be injected underground to release additional oil from oil wells in the Permian Basin. If done carefully, this process could potentially produce “carbon neutral” fuels, which at least add no more emissions to the atmosphere than they have been removed.

Oldham agrees that building more factories will be the key to the rising costs, noting that Carbon Engineering will experience huge reductions between its first factory and its second. How quickly the curve curves from there will depend on how quickly governments adopt carbon pricing or other climate policies that create more demand for carbon removal, he adds. Such policies essentially force “hard to solve” industries like aviation, cement and steel to start paying someone to clean up their pollution.

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