On Thursday, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced the latest program to emerge from the bipartisan infrastructure funding package passed last year. In this case, the money will support the development of a technology that we will almost certainly need but is currently underdeveloped: the capture of carbon dioxide from the air and its stable storage. The Infrastructure Act provides $3.5 billion for direct airborne capture, and the DOE plans to use it to fund four facilities spread across the United States.
Direct Air Capture suffered from a Catch-22. Most scenarios for limiting end-of-century warming assume that over the next few decades we will emit enough carbon dioxide to exceed our climate targets and therefore need to remove some of it from the atmosphere. This would require the development of direct air capture technologies. However, there is currently no way to fund the operation of a facility to carry out the collection, leaving the technology immature and its economics poorly understood.
Funding the DOE has the potential to change some of that. It has a total of $3.5 billion to spend in 2022-2026. It plans to use it to fund four carbon capture and storage centers spread across the US, each with the ability to permanently store one million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
The funding will handle the entire process: the plant that removes and concentrates the carbon dioxide; any pipeline or transportation hardware needed to get to where it will be used or stored; and all equipment needed for storage. Funding is agnostic about the method used for capture and storage, mentioning that chemical capture, removal by biomass, and ocean sequestration are all options.
The entire project is subjected to a life cycle analysis to determine the actual capture potential of all projects. This includes all materials and energy associated with the construction and operation of the facility, all emissions due to land use change and the duration of carbon sequestration. For example, if underground storage is used, leakage from the storage area is taken into account. Likewise, the efficiency of sequestration by chemical reactions needs to be monitored and when incorporated into a product, the shelf life of the product needs to be considered.
The current call for proposals aims to fund projects concurrently with conducting feasibility studies and obtaining permits; further competitive evaluation will take place before things move to the design and build phase. The DOE says projects are evaluated against metrics, including estimated cost per tonne of CO2 handled, the overall handling capacity and the potential for long-term employment. Location will also be an important factor. The DOE wants two to be placed in regions that currently produce fossil fuels, all of them to be placed in areas with high geological carbon storage potential, and for the four to be spread across different regions of the country.
Current plans call for construction to begin in 2026 and operations to begin in 2029. Obviously problems could arise due to a change of management in the intervening years. But once sites are chosen, these projects will likely find defenders in Congress who will make their closure difficult.
After construction, the biggest challenge will be plant operation. Carbon capture makes much more climactic sense when coupled with renewable energy, but the DOE does not seem to take this into account when evaluating these proposals. And the economics of direct aerial capture remain problematic. Different combinations of carbon taxes, materials created by chemical reactions with CO2, and the desire for high-quality carbon offsets could help tip the balance toward profitability. But so far none have materialized on a large enough scale to fund multiple high-power projects like this one.
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