As communities, businesses, and local, state, and national governments define their goals to meet an evolving energy mix, a contentious debate continues around various forms of new technology.
Humans have focused on efficiencies since the time of the Stone Age man. Many things that exist today are legacy applications of these first individuals. Cooking used to consist of using enormous hearths. Now that same application is wrested in smaller stovetop and oven technology. Carts and wheelbarrows advanced into the vehicles we see today, and heating derived from an open flame on the plains or in a cave has advanced to space heaters and electric systems in our homes.
Each generation of humans takes a new step to simplify and perfect existing technology to make them more efficient, faster, and with new materials. For millennia, people have decried the finite ability to continue with certain fuels and technologies. Yet as we are witnessing today, research and development combined with scientific discovery have allowed humans to create new materials and processes while utilizing and conserving older materials and processes better than we ever have before.
One of those systems is enhanced oil recovery (EOR) with carbon capture utilization and storage – or CCUS technology. Enhanced oil recovery is just a fancy way of saying, “Squeeze out the last drop.” Think of a tube of toothpaste, at the beginning, it’s easy to squeeze the paste onto your toothbrush. Halfway through, you have to work the paste closer to the top, and by the final go (especially if you forgot to get it at the store the last time you went) you’re working the paste from the sidewalls and the very bottom – pushing every last bit out until the tube is finally empty. That is EOR.
By the time a company gets to EOR or tertiary recovery (think, third time’s a charm!) they are essentially maximizing the existing well that’s already been drilled, to get out every last bit of oil there is so they don’t have to drill a new well. When used in conjunction with enhanced oil recovery, CCUS is essential to the process.
Why? Because after all of the oil has been taken from a well, there is now space to permanently store captured CO2. That means, through limited construction, it can be used as a storage vessel for large amounts of carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere. These now depleted wells are the foundation for CCUS storage.
Despite advancements in CCUS, environmental organizations are concerned with three pieces associated with the process and the technology.
1. The Cost
Opponents of CCUS criticize the current cost of its implementation and would like to see policymakers and leaders focused on more immediate, low-cost solutions. The problem with this thinking is it denies an existing and proven method to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Had we thought that way about technologies that we use now, we wouldn’t have other viable technologies that are helping us meet our climate goals like wind and solar.
If you remember, at the inception of solar photovoltaic cells in the 1950s (with inflation), costs were roughly $600,000. By 2010, residential units still cost $40,000. It wasn’t until 2021 that the national average price of a residential solar system was $2.94 per watt, which would mean a 5 kWh system would cost $14,700 and a 10 kWh system would cost $29,400. A 245% decrease in cost.
The cost of wind was roughly $750/kW from 2000 to 2002 – now, in 2021, those costs are 1-2 cents per kilowatt-hour. We gave that space and ingenuity to wind and solar. They also received incentives to ensure they were deployed and could reach scale in a cost-efficient manner. So, if you apply that logic and time to CCUS technology, systems could greatly decrease. Why would we leave this option off the table?
2. We Need to Focus on New Cleaner Sources of Energy to Meet Our Climate Goals
While we absolutely need to focus on developing new sources of energy to meet these goals, the reality is we will be using an increased amount of traditional fuels past 2050. The issue of climate change is real, and it is complex. There is no silver bullet to solving this problem. Policymakers, community leaders, and individuals need to work together to bring as many solutions to the table as possible to address the largest issue – emissions. New technology, with research, development, siting, permitting, construction, and more often need extended lead times that can be years and even decades do not help us with emissions now.
CCUS in and of itself combined with the 45Q tax incentive is an effective and existing technology that can help address those emissions and give them a place to be housed. The expansion of 45Q and CCUS technology through research and development would help to greatly expand this much-needed technology and bring carbon capture to scale. Researchers, scientists, and investors are already working on a prototype for this technology that could be viable in the future called direct air capture.
The bottom line is, do we want to address this technology now or in 10 years when we’re panicked and looking for new solutions to existing problems.
3. The Ongoing Use of Traditional Fuel
The energy transition is upon us, yet we still need multiple sources of energy in order to live our everyday lives. As we move towards a lower-carbon future to address global warming, we’ll need every tool in the toolbox to tackle the problem. While this process takes place, there are additional means of emissions reductions that can be implemented now while we continue using traditional energy sources. CCUS is one of them. As other advanced technologies come onto the market to address climate change, CCUS is ready to actively capture carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere – both at the wellhead and at industrial facilities. With CCUS, we can capture the CO2 from it and put it in storage. Remember it is called global warming, not America Warming.
This is a clear win for our environment that we don’t have to wait for. Climate change is not a binary process, so we shouldn’t treat it with a binary solution. Everything we do here at home to mitigate emissions and conserve energy helps the collective human population. Net-zero is the low-hanging fruit in this case. The closer we can get to it through efficiency, conservation, and maximization of current resources – the better.
That means opponents of the cost of CCUS technology need to take into account the total cost and complexity of the energy transition as a whole. While CCUS projects can be expensive, limiting the development and availability of CCUS would slow down and considerably increase the cost and complexity of the energy transition by increasing reliance on technologies that are currently more expensive and at earlier stages of development.
Furthermore, not all CCUS projects are built the same. There are several types of CCUS projects based on source and there are still other types in development that will become more economically viable in the future.
Given the current initial phase of the energy transition, CCUS technologies are among the cheapest (and sometimes only) options for reducing CO2 emissions from heavy industry. Additionally, CCUS costs are already falling, with plenty of room for further reductions. According to the IEA, “Cost reductions have already been achieved at large-scale CCUS projects. For example, the cost of CO2 capture in the power sector has come down by 35% through its evolution from the first to the second large-scale CCUS facility, and this trend is set to continue as the market expands.”
These facts highlight the importance of the continued tax credits provided for CCUS just as they are for wind and solar generation. In fact, CCUS can support the integration of renewables in power systems as well, especially in regions where there are strong seasonal variations in renewable power generation.
Just as with wind and solar, realizing the potential cost reductions in CCUS requires strong policy support in the near term so that we are able to use an all of the above approach to reach net-zero emissions. Thankfully, the Administration has made CCUS a top priority in their myriad climate goals, including a call for $75 million in funding to engineer carbon capture projects.