OPINION — While some experts butt heads over how to slash global carbon emissions, others are experimenting with ways to suck already-emitted gas out of the atmosphere and either store it or roll it back into useful products.
This technology, called direct air capture and storage, is among several strategies that could revolutionize the energy industry and make cleaning up the environment an increasingly profitable enterprise.
In the last decade, the United States has become a global leader in low-emissions, low-cost energy technology. American carbon dioxide emissions have plunged even as our oil, gas and renewable energy productions have all reached record levels.
Going forward, deeper cuts in carbon emissions will be needed to meet international emissions targets, and draining carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is an attractive option.
But without robust public and private investment in direct air capture research here in the U.S., these new tools will be pioneered and brought to market elsewhere, and other nations will reap the economic benefits.
Crucially, Congress has taken steps that could put American industry in a strongly competitive position. For example, lawmakers recently expanded tax credits to accelerate investment in and deployment of carbon capture and storage in general, and at the same time extended eligibility to carbon dioxide removal approaches such as direct air capture and storage.
This step is crucial because, unlike conventional carbon capture, direct air capture can suck up carbon dioxide anywhere, not just from power plants or industrial facilities.
Many think carbon dioxide emissions are a problem, and they are—a very serious one. But they can also be contained and given a second life. In fact, the global market for carbon dioxide, valued at $6 billion in 2015, is expected to double in size by 2023 and keep growing.
A few small commercial projects are already showing how direct air capture can meet this demand.
Global Thermostat, the lone American company in the direct air game, has a pilot plant in California with commercial units under construction in Alabama. The company, which has landed 35 patents to date, uses waste heat to capture carbon and sells pure carbon dioxide for use in building materials and fuels.
A Canadian firm, Carbon Engineering, operates an “air-to-fuels” pilot plant in British Columbia, using captured carbon dioxide to produce up to one barrel of synthetic fuel per day.
Another firm, Climeworks, has commercial and demonstration plants in Switzerland and Iceland, with contracts for carbon dioxide supply and removal services. It injects captured carbon dioxide into the ground, where it becomes rock.
Use it or lose it
Today, carbon dioxide helps make concrete and cement stronger and lower-cost; is used to produce precursors for plastic, chemicals and other feedstocks; and is synthesized to make gasoline and biofuels.
It is also used commercially in the U.S. to increase oil production by improving yield from mature fields through enhanced oil recovery. The ability to sell or convert carbon dioxide into useful products is what makes this approach commercially viable.
But that promise can’t be realized without investment.
So far, only a handful of wealthy angel investors in this country have shown an interest, alongside limited federal support from the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy.
As with so many other emerging technologies, the private sector tends to underinvest in breakthrough energy research because it is capital-intensive and development can drag on for years before anything can be broadly deployed.
Decades of federal research funding have filled a crucial investment gap and helped improve cost and performance for many of the energy technologies we use today, including advanced combustion engines, lithium-ion batteries and solar panels, all of which have generated billions in economic returns and savings for consumers.
But when it comes to direct air capture and storage, we need more. What’s at stake? The chance to make America’s diverse energy supply cleaner and more efficient by putting carbon byproducts to use, spur further advances in materials science and manufacturing, and boost business growth.
Efforts are gaining traction in the Senate, with a bipartisan vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee in favor of the USE IT Act, which promotes carbon capture research and development, including a focus on direct air capture and storage. But this is just a first step.
American leadership on this issue now can improve our nation’s global energy, economic and environmental position, but only if we nurture its development through thoughtful and sustained federal investment.
Byron Dorgan is a senior fellow at BPC and a former Democratic senator from North Dakota. He served as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and a senior member of the Energy Committee.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Website | Twitter | Facebook