What it takes to achieve affordable carbon removal


MIT Technology Review

Two companies have started planning what is possibly the largest direct air separation system in Europe, which can capture up to a million tons of carbon dioxide annually and bury it deep under the bottom of the North Sea.

The sequestered climate pollution is sold as carbon credit, reflecting the increasing demand for carbon removal as a number of nations and companies put in place zero-emission plans that directly or indirectly rely heavily on the use of trees, machines, or other means are to draw carbon dioxide from the air.

Climatologists say the world may need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide annually by the middle of the century to tackle the “residual emissions” from things like aviation and agriculture that we cannot afford to get rid of by then – and the climate of extreme dangerous times to get rid of degrees of warming.

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

The facility proposed by two companies, Carbon Engineering and Storegga Geotechnologies, is likely to be located in northeast Scotland and will allow the use of abundant renewable energy and divert captured carbon dioxide to nearby offshore locations, the companies said. It should go online by 2026.

“We can’t stop everyone [source of] Emissions, ”said Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering based in British Columbia. “It’s too difficult, too expensive and too disruptive. This is where carbon removal comes into play. We see a growing realization that this will be essential. “

Get to $ 100 a ton

Oldham refuses to say how much the companies want to charge for carbon removal, saying they don’t yet know what cost per ton they would get from the European facility.

However, he is confident that it will eventually reach the target direct air capture cost levels identified in a 2018 analysis conducted in Joule under the direction of Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith. It set the range at $ 94 to $ 232 per ton once the technology reached commercial scale.

Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering


Getting to $ 100 per ton is essentially the point of economy, as large U.S. customers generally pay $ 65 to $ 110 for carbon dioxide used for commercial purposes, according to a little-noticed May paper from Habib Azarabadi and the pioneer of direct air collection Klaus Lackner, both at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University. (The $ 100 doesn’t include the separate, but significantly lower, cost of carbon sequestration.)

At this point, direct air capture could be a reasonably inexpensive way to address 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 leaves the stream . Factories and factories, according to the authors.

But the best guess is that the sector is nowhere near that level. In 2019, Swiss direct air capture company Climeworks said the cost was between $ 500 and $ 600 per ton.

What it takes to hit the $ 100 mark is to build a whole bunch of plants, Azarabadi and Lackner found.

Specifically, the study estimates that the direct air capture industry will need to grow by a factor of just over 300 to reach a cost of $ 100 per tonne. This is based on the “learning rates” of successful technologies, or how quickly costs have decreased with increasing production capacity. To get direct air capture to this point, aggregate federal subsidies of $ 50 million to $ 2 billion may be required to make up the difference between actual costs and market rates for the commodity carbon dioxide.

According to Lackner, the key question is whether her study applied the right learning curves from successful technologies like solar energy – where costs dropped by about a factor of 10 when the scaling increased 1,000-fold – or whether direct air separation into a rarer one The category of technologies falls where there is greater learning does not lead to rapid cost reductions.

“A few hundred million put into buying the cost could tell if that’s a good or bad assumption,” he said in an email.

Dream catcher

The UK has a plan to reduce its emissions to zero by 2050, which will require removing millions of tons of carbon dioxide to offset the sources of emissions that are likely to still cause pollution. The government has begun allocating millions of dollars to develop a variety of engineering approaches to achieve these goals, including approximately $ 350,000 for the efforts of Carbon Engineering and Storegga known as Project Dreamcatcher.

The plant is likely to be located near what is known as the Acorn project, which was developed by Storegga’s Scottish subsidiary Pale Blue Dot Energy. The plan is to generate hydrogen from natural gas from the North Sea and to absorb the emissions in the process. The project would also repurpose the existing oil and gas infrastructure on the northeast tip of Scotland to carry the carbon dioxide that would be injected below the seabed.

The proposed direct air capture facility could use the same infrastructure for its carbon storage, says Oldham.

Companies initially expect to build a facility that can collect 500,000 tons annually, but could eventually double the size due to market demand. Even the lower end would far exceed what would otherwise be Europe’s largest facility, Climeworks’ Orca facility in Iceland, which is expected to remove 4,000 tons annually. Only a handful of other small systems have been built around the world.

The expected capacity of the plant in Scotland is essentially the same as that of the other Carbon Engineering plant planned for Texas. It will also begin as a half a million tons per year facility with the potential to reach one million. Construction of this facility is expected to begin early next year and is expected to go into operation in 2024.

However, a large part of the carbon dioxide captured in this plant is used for so-called enhanced oil recovery: the gas is injected underground to release additional oil from oil wells in the Permian Basin. If carried out carefully, this process could potentially produce “carbon neutral” fuels that at least do not add more emissions to the atmosphere than are removed.

Oldham agrees that building more plants will be key to increasing costs, noting that Carbon Engineering will see a huge drop from the first plant to the second alone. How much the curve bends from there depends 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” sectors like aerospace, cement and steel to pay someone to clean up their pollution.

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