Is there a profitable approach to carbon capture and storage?
with George Peridas, Jonathan Kusel, and Joshuah Stolaroff
In the international carbon offset market, the average price of removing one tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere is still below $15 USD, nowhere near enough to cover the costs of carbon capture and storage (CCS). As Dr. Sheila Olmstead (University of Texas, Austin) explained in a recent Climate Now podcast episode, this is why CCS is one of the few climate technologies not experiencing exponential growth. “Unless there’s a market for captured CO2, then it doesn’t make economic sense… to adopt these carbon capture technologies.”
But what if, instead of making captured CO2 the only marketable product, the capture is accomplished while also producing other goods and services?
Climate Now spoke with three pioneers developing startup programs in California that plan to use biowaste (that is, agricultural residues or vegetation cleared from forests to increase their resiliency to drought, fire or infestation) to produce hydrogen fuel and CO2. The technique is called ‘bioenergy and carbon capture and storage,’ or BECCS. The hydrogen can be sold and the CO2 captured and stored underground. Join us for our discussion with George Peridas of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Jonathan Kusel of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, and Josh Stolaroff of Mote, to hear how this approach could make CCS economically feasible, perhaps even profitable, while also providing a benefit to local communities already experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, and an essential service for the well-being of our planet.
Director, Carbon Management Partnerships at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Director, Carbon Management Partnerships at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
George Peridas is the Energy Program Director, Carbon Management Partnerships at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is responsible for promoting partnerships that result in the advancement and deployment of carbon management solutions and technologies, including the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or so-called negative emissions. George’s recent experience of over a decade in the environmental NGO world has made him well versed in the fields of policy, legislation and regulation relevant to climate change, carbon management and energy, and keenly aware of the spectrum of views that need to be reconciled in order to reach meaningful consensus in this field.
George’s background in energy markets consulting and scientific research in an academic environment enable him to translate complex information into lay language in order to advance multiple goals.
Executive Director at Sierra Institute for Community and Environment
Executive Director at Sierra Institute for Community and Environment
Jonathan founded the Sierra Institute in 1993 and has directed the organization ever since. He received a Ph.D. in Natural Resource Sociology and Policy from U.C. Berkeley, where he was an instructor before launching Sierra Institute. His dissertation focused on how rural northern Sierra communities changed following the departure of their wood products anchor businesses. This work, at the intersection of community and forest and watershed health formed the basis for the Sierra Institute’s mission and approach. He also holds a Masters in Forest Science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Chief Technology Officer at Mote
Chief Technology Officer at Mote
Joshuah Stolaroff is the co-founder and CTO of Mote Hydrogen. He previously ran the Carbon Capture program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and led projects at the intersection of advanced manufacturing and clean energy.
Climate Now Host
Climate Now Host
[00:00:00] James Lawler: Welcome to climate. Now, I’m your host, James Lawler. Our regular listeners may notice that today we’ve got new music. Well, it turns out that one of our guests, chief technology officer of the company, mote hydrogen, Josh Stoff is also an accomplished musician and he was kind enough to give our jingle an overhaul. Josh, thanks again.
[00:00:24] James Lawler:In this week’s podcast, we’re exploring a pioneering method of carbon capture and storage that addresses one of its biggest hurdles: the cost. For those joining us for the first time, Climate Now is a multimedia platform that provides expert led insight into the technologies, methods, and theories that underpin the global transition away from fossil fuels.
[00:00:29] James Lawler: You can visit our website, climatenow.com to find full transcripts of our podcasts, and to browse our videos, which provide comprehensive overviews of key climate and energy topics with the help of leading experts and illustrative charts and graphics.
[00:00:42] James Lawler: You can also subscribe to our in-depth newsletter, called Systems Thinking, where we analyze important trends and ideas, from energy efficiency to decarbonizing road transportation, and more. As always, if you find the conversation today useful, share it with a friend or colleague. And if you have notes for us, please email us at climatenow.com. We love to hear from our listeners.
[00:01:04] James Lawler: On this podcast, we’ve had several conversations about the need to not just reduce carbon pollution, but to actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through carbon dioxide removal, or CDR, techniques like carbon capture, storage, and utilization.
[00:01:19] James Lawler: One of the largest obstacles to using carbon capture and storage on a large scale is its cost. Today, we’re going to discuss one form of the technique that could not just make carbon dioxide removal more affordable, it could make it profitable. It involves taking carbon-rich waste biomass, like leftover wood from forestry, yard clippings from landscaping, scrap wood from construction, that sort of thing, and turning it into hydrogen fuel, and storing the leftover carbon safely underground. This method is called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage or BECCS for short.
[00:01:56] James Lawler: In this episode, I’ll speak with the minds behind two BECCS projects that are currently in development in California. First, Jonathan Kusel, founder of the Sierra Institute, and carbon capture scientist George Peridas from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have developed a project in the Sierra foothills that aims to help California meet its carbon reduction goals while also protecting local communities and ecosystems.
[00:02:19] James Lawler: I’ll also speak with Joshua Stolaroff, of the company Mote, which is a Los Angeles-based startup that produces clean hydrogen fuel from biowaste. In our conversation, we’ll discuss the real world economics of a hydrogen-producing and carbon capture storage technology that could be a win for the planet, people, and profit margins.
[00:02:39] James Lawler: First, let’s do a quick overview of carbon capture utilization and storage. If you wanna learn more, you can check out our podcast episode, Carbon Capture 101 with Howard Herzog, or our two part video series on the technology cost and potential of CCS. But for now, the thing to keep in mind is that on the spectrum of carbon dioxide removal strategies, carbon capture is among the most complicated and expensive, but also the most secure. You can think: giant towers of fans pulling in air, filtering out the CO2, and pumping that CO2 deep underground, where it’ll be securely stored for thousands or millions of years.
[00:03:16] James Lawler: While other techniques are more simple and inexpensive, like planting a lot of new trees, for example, that naturally removes CO2 from the air, they don’t offer that security. All you need is a forest fire or a pine beetle infestation, and all that trap carbon goes right back up in the atmosphere.
[00:03:33] James Lawler: George Peridas has spent his career researching carbon capture techniques. He joined the Natural Resource Defense Council in 2006, and he is now with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In our first conversation, he explained why carbon capture is more important today than ever.
[00:03:50] George Peridas: I think what has happened since 2006 is a much deeper realization of how deep of a trough we’re in, when it comes to climate change. I think the speed of change that we have witnessed in the natural world has really picked up, and with it, I think, has come the realization that we are simply not moving fast enough in the action space and the policy space.
[00:04:17] James Lawler: But carbon capture faces a number of challenges. Some methods are still largely theoretical.
[00:04:22] James Lawler: Others are too costly. One of the most popular carbon removal methods involves capturing CO2 directly from coal or gas fired power plants before it can escape into the atmosphere, but some critics argue that that approach gives the energy industry an excuse to delay a full transition to sustainable power.
[00:04:38] James Lawler: One challenge almost all carbon removal methods share, though, is that while they provide a service, they do not actually make a product, and until the world is ready to pay up for an atmospheric carbon cleanup service, these methods do not generate enough revenue alone to offset their costs.
[00:04:53] James Lawler: However, George Peridas believes that BECCS, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, could be an exception.
[00:05:00] James Lawler: He has partnered with Jonathan Kusel and the Sierra Institute, a California-based nonprofit, on a new project that aims to take waste wood from forestry, convert it into clean burning hydrogen fuel, and store the excess carbon safely underground. I sat down virtually with Jonathan Kusel and George Peridas, to ask them how that works.
[00:05:18] James Lawler: So, Jonathan, let’s start with you. What is the name of this project? Does it have a name?
[00:05:22] Jonathan Kusel: You can probably criticize me for us not coming up with that sexy title yet, but at this point, it’s the Indian Valley Wood Utilization Campus.
[00:05:31] Jonathan Kusel: And George, how did you and Jonathan come to be working together? What are you collaborating on?
[00:05:36] George Peridas: So, there are several converging elements and trends here. California faces, in particular, several problems at the same time. It has very ambitious climate goals. It aims to be carbon neutral no later than 2045. It has been plagued by catastrophic wildfires, and the problem seems to be worsening. It has an economy which has been for some time now quite heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction and use, and it’s looking for ways to transition away from that economy.
[00:06:12] George Peridas: So, we have many problems to solve at the same time. Where Jonathan and I came together and met is that we discovered that we could kill several birds with one stone. And in particular, the idea of not just being carbon neutral, but actually removing CO2 on a net basis from the atmosphere, being carbon negative can also be done at the same time as benefiting local communities, improving their air quality, and also reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires and the severity if they do happen.
[00:06:48] James Lawler: Jonathan, tell us about the current state of this project, and also of this technology that George is describing. How far along are you with this effort?
[00:06:59] Jonathan Kusel: California is investing now billions into landscape, but what’s not well understood, or I should say, is increasingly understood is that if we don’t figure out what to do with some of that material, we are not gonna be successful at addressing the landscape problems that we do have because of the scale and the volume of material that needs to come out of our forest.
[00:07:24] Jonathan Kusel: I’m not talking about industrial forestry that mows down landscapes, which is not to say all industrial forestry does that, but it is to say, this is not about removing all this material.
[00:07:33] Jonathan Kusel: So, we cannot only just take that material, turn a turbine, make electricity, which is an effective use of it, but we can take that material, and through a gasification process, we can turn it into hydrogen to address exactly what George was alluding to.
[00:07:51] James Lawler: What part does the Sierra Institute play in that equation?
[00:07:55] Jonathan Kusel: By purchasing this 28 acre mill site, we’re creating a place where that work can actually be done, that is, the conversion of biomass to hydrogen. What we’ve also learned is that when one takes material from the forest, it’s really important to try to, quote unquote, add value to it. Biomass itself has very low to no value. That is, it costs a certain amount of money to thin the forest, it costs some more money to transport it, and then it costs some more money to utilize it.
[00:08:26] Jonathan Kusel: So, if you can produce products from that material, now you’re way ahead of the game with the idea of creating a loop in which you produce something more valuable that then can be reinvested back into the landscape. We’re creating the cycle of creating a product and adding value to that product, such that it can then support additional restoration practices.
[00:08:49] James Lawler: Maybe you could paint a picture of where are you in the process with the project? Like, what is the status? Has any of the infrastructure been built on this plot yet for this gasification process? Or, is it just the plot of land that’s been built?
[00:09:05] Jonathan Kusel: We’ve done a variety of assessment efforts, and remediation efforts, onsite.
[00:09:09] Jonathan Kusel: Step one was getting the site, but we had to do that to understand the liabilities associated with it. So, they went together. Two, continuing to develop the site in ways that allow for these sorts of technologies to be advanced onsite. Three, we’re working with forest service, Plumas, National Forest, Lassen National Forest, Region Five of the Forest Service, to develop contracts, to help assure a supply of material, because what anybody who wants to invest in a facility like this will say, well, I don’t want to put up 50, 100 million dollars only to see three years from now, there’s no supply, and then it’s a stranded investment.
[00:09:50] Jonathan Kusel: So, we’re working to assure that those contracts are in place, that there’s confidence that we’ll have that material. One of the ironies here is that as we have fires like the Dixie Fire, like the fire in Paradise, like a lot of these other fires, we’re creating material faster than we can possibly use it.
[00:10:06] Jonathan Kusel: Nonetheless, we still need to make sure that there are contracts in place, and so we’re very close to working with the Forest Service, where some of this work is absolutely essential to assure the supply to launch a facility like this.
[00:10:21] James Lawler: How much biomass do you need to deliver per year to this facility, out of curiosity?
[00:10:27] Jonathan Kusel: I need a thousand to 100 thousand tons per year.
[00:10:30] James Lawler: And George, from your perspective, what does success look like for this project?
[00:10:35] George Peridas: There’s nothing more compelling, in my view, than having a real facility that’s on the ground. That does all the things that, you know, these reports and studies identify. There’s no arguing with a real project. You go over to visit it, and you see it,, and it’s doing what it’s meant to be doing.
[00:10:56] George Peridas: I think what’s particularly attractive, or exciting to me about this project is that this is a unique opportunity for us to demonstrate that what’s good for the climate, it’s also good for local air quality, it’s also good for community welfare and economic well being. This is a unique chance, if you ask me, to demonstrate that we moved away from the paradigm of the past where certain types of projects or developments were put in place to serve the whole, but actually had a negative impact on local minorities.
[00:11:40] James Lawler: I’m wondering if there’s a back-of-the-envelope narrative that you could could tell us regarding the proposed economics for this operation?
[00:11:50] James Lawler: You have the hydrogen that you’re producing that someone’s, presumably going to buy. You’ve got these other products you’ve alluded to, in terms of other uses for the burnt woo. Is there a kind of revenue model that you’ve worked out, or that you’re sort of aiming for?
[00:12:07] Jonathan Kusel: In a grossly oversimplistic way, does the darn thing work and can we pay for it? And then can we purchase chips? But, in more detail to your answer.
[00:12:20] James Lawler: Yeah.
[00:12:21] Jonathan Kusel: We have talked about a payment per ton of biomass, and biomass, as I mentioned previously, has low to no value. It does not pay its way out of the woods. Back to our point, is there a state and federal benefit to this kind of project? And the answer is absolutely yes, if what we can do is generate something that pays 50 to 55 dollars per ton of biomass. Now, we’re paying for some of the restoration, and we’re not just looking for a subsidy to do that work on the landscape, so there’s a very direct relationship by setting up these facilities.
[00:12:58] Jonathan Kusel: This is to the point of, if we can invest in these facilities, create these opportunities, that’s essential for us societally being successful in restoring our landscapes. Without a place to take material that will buy material that will pay for material over time, we will not be successful.
[00:13:19] Jonathan Kusel: So, the model then is, can we pay enough for the biomass to get it out of the woods? And then, is there a market that will pay for that product, like hydrogen, hydrogen fuel with the carbon credits that are associated with it, that’s a viable model, as we’ve done the back-of-the-envelope, and much more detailed than that, as we’ve looked at the economics of it.
[00:13:41] James Lawler: So, to summarize, the Sierra Institute is working to take 90 to 100,000 tons of waste each year from necessary forest thinning, and convert that biomass into hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen gas is a fuel that can be sold for a profit, and the carbon dioxide formed from all of that carbon that was in that wood, could be sequestered safely underground.
[00:14:03] James Lawler: Jonathan said the project will require at least 50 to 100 million in investment, but he and George are confident the project will be profitable, will help protect people from wildfires, and will help the state of California reach its carbon reduction goals. It’s what they call a triple bottom line model, i.e. a win-win-win for the climate, local communities, and investors.
[00:14:25] James Lawler: But, let me take a quick pause to explain why hydrogen is important. Hydrogen is a combustible fuel, but it’s extremely clean burning. In fact, when you burn hydrogen, the main byproduct is water. The problem is that pure hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally as a concentrated and mineable resource. You have to manufacture it, and that process uses a lot of energy to pull the hydrogen out of more common hydrogen-bearing compounds like water, organic material, or fossil fuels. BECCS projects extract the hydrogen from wood and other biomass, but the process releases CO2 as a byproduct, which then needs to be captured and stored safely underground.
[00:15:05] James Lawler: This gasification approach is relatively new in the world of carbon capture, but the Sierra Institute aren’t the only ones developing it. Here’s Dr. Joshua Stolaroff, Chief Technology Officer of bioenergy and carbon capture startup Mote, explaining how it works.
[00:15:22] Joshua Stolaroff: So, waste biomass includes agricultural residues, like orchard tree trimmings, nut shells, fruit pits, and those are important feedstocks for our process. It includes forest residues, from fire management, they clear brush and small trees, and it can include urban green waste, so yard trimmings, pellet wood from construction, and construction and demolition debris.
[00:15:53] Joshua Stolaroff: So, to gasify biomass, you feed it into a vessel where it gets heated with a limited amount of oxygen. If you heat it up to, let’s say 400 degrees Celsius, or 800 degrees Fahrenheit, you get pyrolysis. You turn it into other forms of carbon, and you can make liquid fuels that way, you can make biochar that way, but if you keep going up in temperature, up to 1500 Fahrenheit or 800 Celsius, that kind of range, then everything turns to gasses.
[00:16:30] Joshua Stolaroff: So, that’s gasification. We end up with hydrogen and carbon dioxide as outputs, and there’s some ash. Ash, we can sell as a fertilizer additive. Hydrogen, we sell for transportation, and CO2 we put underground for geologic storage.
[00:16:47] James Lawler: Like the Sierra Institute, Mote is based in California. Before officially joining the company, Joshua actually spent 11 years at the lab where George Peridas is based, Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He helped create their carbon capture program, and he and his colleagues later consulted with the State of California to help it define strategies for meeting its net-zero goals.
[00:17:09] James Lawler: Joshua said, after extensive research into various carbon capture methods, BECCS stood above the rest for both cost and efficiency.
[00:17:18] Joshua Stolaroff: We did an analysis, and it became the report called “Getting to Neutral” about the carbon removal options in California. And we built a supply curve. We said, here are all the things you can do that are less expensive, like natural solutions on up to the most expensive things, which were direct air capture. In the middle, it turned out there was a huge portion of options that were using waste biomass to remove carbon, but also make other things. And biomass gasification to hydrogen was one of the pathways that we looked at. We also looked at biomass pyrolysis to liquid fuels, hydrothermal liquefaction of biomass, and burning biomass to make electricity, all these options.
[00:18:09] Joshua Stolaroff: It was a surprise that biomass gasification to hydrogen with carbon capture was the best. It turned out to be the best in terms of the amount of carbon you could remove, the cost you could do it at, and the fossil fuel emissions that you avoided by making renewable hydrogen instead of fossil hydrogen.
[00:18:30] James Lawler: And then with the hydrogen piece, you’re also selling the hydrogen. So, that’s being purchased by the transportation industry, or would be purchased by transport. What are the applications of hydrogen in transport, and how developed is that market today in California?
[00:18:49] Joshua Stolaroff: The market for hydrogen as a direct transportation fuel is also new in California.
[00:18:55] Joshua Stolaroff: There are hydrogen stations out there and you can buy hydrogen cars, and that market is growing rapidly. So, we think actually the bigger market in the long run is going to be heavy duty trucks and transit, like buses. So, we plan to sell the majority of our hydrogen for heavy duty filling stations, but there are a lot of other uses of hydrogen besides that.
[00:19:22] James Lawler: What about other applications? Like other industries, harder to abate sectors like shipping or steel making? Do you see promise for hydrogen in those arenas?
[00:19:31] Joshua Stolaroff: Yeah, I think hydrogen can be really important for steelmaking. It’s crucial for fertilizer, ammonia production, and I think another area where it’s really useful is as energy storage for electricity production.
[00:19:48] Joshua Stolaroff: So, you know, in California, we want to go to a carbon-neutral grid. As a country, we want to go to a carbon-neutral grid. You can theoretically do that with all renewables and batteries, but it’s very expensive. A lot of recent reports where they model out what happens when you have, you know, a 100 percent renewable grid, show that it’s expensive because the batteries are expensive.
Sources (cont’d): https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/07/27/141282/the-25-trillion-reason-we-cant-rely-on-batteries-to-clean-up-the-grid/
[00:20:14] Joshua Stolaroff: It’s expensive because you need to build a lot more wind and solar to make up for the gaps in supply, and it takes up a huge amount of land. If you had some base load power, or some dispatchable power in there, it drastically reduces the amount of land you need, drastically reduces the cost of the system.
[00:20:34] James Lawler: So, you formed your company and you are the chief technology officer there. What does that entail, at the moment? Where are you currently in the build-out of this company in your operations?
[00:20:46] Joshua Stolaroff: Mote today is a startup company. We have six people full-time, and we’re moving toward deploying these facilities that turn wood waste into hydrogen and CO2.
[00:21:00] Joshua Stolaroff: So, what we’ve done in the last year is we’ve done the initial phase of engineering for the first project. We’ve developed some of the intellectual property around how you do that, and it’s the design for the facility, how you put the pieces together to achieve this goal. And, we talk with customers, we talk with investors, we talk with technology vendors, to put together projects and put together the pieces of the technology that can make it happen.
[00:21:31] Joshua Stolaroff: And, do you have a facility that’s up and running yet? Or, I assume no, you’re looking for investment so you can build one?
[00:21:37] Joshua Stolaroff: We have the preliminary, they call it the preliminary front-end engineering design for the first facility. So, the next step would be the front-end engineering design, so the more detailed phase of engineering, and then we would seek project investment. We would go to funders and say, here’s our plan, the economics of it work out this way, loan us 300 million dollars, or give us part of that package, to build the plant.
[00:22:08] James Lawler: In terms of the inputs, how easy is it currently to get up and running and supply oneself with a stream of biomass?
[00:22:21] Joshua Stolaroff: There’s a lot of waste biomass out there. There are tens of millions of tons in California, hundreds of millions of tons in the United States, but getting it for a bioenergy project is a process. It’s a personal relationship-driven business. As you might imagine, the suppliers are farmers, they’re municipalities, they’re foresters, and so, you need to deal with a lot of small players, and you have to have a strategy for putting together a supply from a bunch of different sources, and making it reliable.
[00:23:00] James Lawler: The picture that’s in my head is somebody in a big truck just going around to all these farmers and saying, “hey, do you have any anything you can throw in the back, here?” and going up to forests, and sort of rummaging through and pulling out big logs. Obviously, that’s not the way that this needs to work.
[00:23:18] Joshua Stolaroff: I’ll say it is more organized than that. The companies that pick up biomas from farmers, that are agriculture residues, they have long-term contracts, and they have equipment that they have to invest in, multi-million dollar equipment, for processing and transporting biomass.
[00:23:37] Joshua Stolaroff: In California, there’s a well-developed network of biomass supply, and it’s been driven by bioenergy plants that are operating, or have recently operated, and rules about landfill biomass or you soon won’t be able to landfill waste biomass, and you soon won’t be able to field burn agricultural residues.
[00:24:00] James Lawler: And then on the output side, you’ve got hydrogen CO2 and the ash, where does the CO2 go? Is it compressed CO2, and who are the buyers of that?
[00:24:11] Joshua Stolaroff: Primarily with CO2, we put it underground. So, we partner with companies that are doing geologic storage, and in California, right now, those are mainly oil and gas companies, and they have the expertise, the land, and projects to do CO2 storage from other sources, and so we piggyback onto those projects, and we pay them a fee per ton CO2, and they take the CO2 and assure that it stays underground.
[00:24:42] James Lawler: What is the going rate for hydrogen, you know, average going rate in the marketplace, if you want to buy a ton of hydrogen?
[00:24:50] Joshua Stolaroff: So, if you go to a filling station in California today, you’d pay around $15 per kilogram of hydrogen, which is actually pretty expensive. Although, as expensive as gasoline is right now, it’s kind of on par. We think that will come down over time.
“New California hydrogen station retailing at $13.14/kg.”
[00:25:09] James Lawler: So, what does that look like in terms of cost profile? It sounds like that’s pretty good then, right?
[00:25:17] Joshua Stolaroff: Economically, it works out, and it’s because hydrogen is valuable, and carbon removal is valuable,and there’s a lot of carbon in biomass.
[00:25:28] Joshua Stolaroff: As an energy carrier, per unit weight, it’s not great, compared to fossil fuels. So, coal has like twice the energy per unit weight that wood chips do, and coal’s not even that great. So, for a long time, biomass was thought of this marginal energy source, but when you think of it as a carbon carrier, it’s half carbon by weight, and it’s carbon that plants took out of the air.
[00:25:54] Joshua Stolaroff: So, that’s really inexpensive carbon removal compared to industrial means, like direct air capture. And it’s putting those value streams together, the carbon removal and the hydrogen production that makes Mote’s process work.
[00:26:09] James Lawler: When an organization like Mote or the Sierra Institute creates hydrogen fuel from biomass, it doesn’t just manufacture a product, it also provides the service of carbon removal. And Joshua says the number of revenue sources for carbon removal is growing.
[00:26:25] James Lawler: The federal government provides a tax credit for carbon removal, and there are state-level incentives, like the California low-carbon fuel standard, which provides financial incentives for using and producing low-carbon fuel.
[00:26:37] James Lawler: There is also a growing private sector market for carbon removal and offsetting as more companies try to reduce their own emissions. But the growing market for carbon removal might actually present a challenge for projects like the Sierra Institute’s Indian Valley Campus.
[00:26:52] James Lawler: During my conversation with George Peridas and Jonathan Kusel, I asked about the potential scale of their project. Jonathan explained that in their case, bigger does not necessarily mean better.
[00:27:02] Jonathan Kusel: So, the economics are such that most investors would prefer to go to 400 or 500,000 tons per year, but when you build a facility that’s four and five times larger, you impact a local area that much more. You also go beyond the capacity of the nearby landscape, so you’re hauling from further and further distances to bring in that material.
[00:27:28] Jonathan Kusel: So, we are trying to scale this with, one, the available technology, technology that works at an appropriate economic scale, but that also can be served by that nearby landscape to avoid 100-mile, 75-mile, 60-mile haul distances.
[00:27:45] Jonathan Kusel: So, we reduce the carbon impact just in terms of sourcing material, and then that is also tied to workforce capacity, which is why we talk about community scale, and the importance of that. And that’s a challenge in lining up the economics with the reality of the industrial operation and investor interests in advancing something like this.
[00:28:07] James Lawler: Basically, there are a lot of stakeholders and different interests at play when you are trying to remove biowaste, produce an energy supply, and capture in store carbon. And there is a lot of room for skepticism. George pointed out that even some in the climate movement are weary of carbon capture, especially methods that capture emissions directly from coal or gas fired power plants. They fear it could give the industry an excuse to delay a full transition to sustainable power.
[00:28:30] George Peridas: They’ve created this association between capturing carbon and some of the fossil fuel companies that, in their eyes, are the arch-enemies. I think the best way to describe it is wanting carbon capture to be tomorrow’s technology forever.
[00:28:46] George Peridas: The promise of something cleaner as a way to legitimize what you’re doing today, when it’s clearly incompatible with human, environmental, and climate protection.
[00:29:01] James Lawler: Joshua Stolaroff also pointed out that BECCS and carbon capture methods in general are still relatively new, and the industry still depends on government incentives.
[00:29:10] James Lawler: Again, the revenue model of the projects of Mote and the Sierra Institute both rely on state and federal tax credits. Joshua says those incentives may be strong now, but the industry can’t take them for granted.
[00:29:21] Joshua Stolaroff: This is the same challenge that any carbon capture and any climate mitigation technology has, is the time we have to scale it is short, and the challenge that carbon capture has had in 20 years that I’ve been working in it, for a long time, was that there weren’t incentives in place to make people do it. We waited a long time to have the state and federal policies that would incentivize carbon capture, and I spent a long time at a national lab trying to make carbon capture 10 percent less expensive so that hopefully some policymakers would think that it was worth putting an incentive in place.
[00:30:05] Joshua Stolaroff: It was only in the last few years that we turned around and saw that the incentives are there, that you could do carbon capture and storage with the existing frameworks, and make a business out of it. So, that part is really exciting, but it also means that the policy environment has to stay strongly supportive of carbon capture.
[00:30:26] Joshua Stolaroff: It is totally possible that if the incentives weaken or disappear for a couple of years, that the industry would be set back another decade.
[00:30:36] James Lawler: That being said, Joshua, Jonathan, and George believe in the future of BECCS, the hydrogen market, and carbon capture in general, and they are committed to helping the industry develop one log and wood chip at a time.
[00:30:46] James Lawler: With BECCS, they have found a carbon capture strategy in which social acceptance and profits have a good chance of both being part of the mix. Two aspects of most carbon capture and storage endeavors that so far have remained stubbornly elusive.
[00:31:02] James Lawler:That’s it for this episode of the podcast. To learn more about carbon capture, utilization and sequestration, check out our interviews with Howard Herzog and Julio Friedmann at climatenow.com. There, you can also find two videos on carbon capture, where we go deep into the cost and potential CO2 storage capacity of these technologies.
[00:31:19] James Lawler: And if you want to get in touch, please do email us at email@example.com. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation!