Last week, billionaire entrepreneur and world’s richest person, Elon Musk announced on Twitter that he is co-sponsoring the “largest incentive prize in history” to encourage the development of innovative carbon capture technologies in an effort to stem – and even reverse – the effects of man-made global warming by 2050.
Known as the XPrize, a portion of the $100 million pot of money will be distributed to successful applicants to help them build prototypes of viable and scalable solutions that can suck carbon out of air and water at the rate of at least 1 ton per day and store it safely (ideally for 100 years or more). The winner of the competition, as well as two runners-up, will then receive the remaining funds to develop their prototypes into fully functioning pieces of tech. The full list of criteria against which proposal will be judged are available on the official website. Applications will open on Earth Day (April 22, 2021) and the competition is slated to run for four years.
Mr Musk has demonstrated several times over recent weeks and months that he has the ability to rapidly marshal interest and support in any area that he turns his attention to (take, for example, the fact that his endorsement of cryptocurrencies at the end of January this year caused the value of Bitcoin and Dodgecoin to jump by 50%). So, one would expect that his backing of a noteworthy cause will help draw in applications, and start people talking about long-overdue solutions to the climate crisis.
But what is carbon technology, and is it really the best horse for Mr Musk to back in the race against climate change?
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is actually a tried-and-tested technology that is used by coal-fired power plants to limit the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that they release into the atmosphere. According to the Global CCS Institute’s 2019 Status Report, 40 million metric tons of CO₂ is captured from power plants on an annual basis, and various different CCS solutions have already been developed. For its part, the US is home to 10 of the 19 large-scale facilities that use CCS around the world, capturing between 400,000 tons and 800,000 tons of CO₂ per year.
Despite the fact that CCS is not a new technology, it has struggled to make a significant impact on reducing the impact of CO₂ emissions for three main reasons:
- Cost – saving the world comes at a price, and it is not cheap. While estimates of the true cost of CCS vary quite a bit (ranging anywhere between $43 to $95 per ton of CO₂ captured), it is commonly acknowledged that as a technology, it is significantly more expensive than, say, an onshore wind farm, or a large-scale solar plant (which come in at about $30 per ton). Direct air capture – of the type that Mr Musk is backing – comes in at an eye-popping $100-$150 per ton (since the concentration of CO₂ in the air is significantly lowered than in a smoke-stack, so machines need to work harder).
- Resource consumption – running a CCS solution is expensive not just in dollars, but in resources as well. Powerplants that have adopted CCS actually become less efficient in producing electricity from the same amount of coal, and they also end up consuming a significant amount of water (with the result that by trying to solve one environmental problem, we are exacerbating another).
- Transportation – since most facilities do not have the ability to store captured carbon locally, it needs to be transported to a safe storage facility using specially designed and built pipelines. Again, this has significant cost implications, as the CO₂ is captured in gaseous form, and needs to be compressed into a liquid for before it can be sent down the pipeline to the storage facility.
- Public perception – due to the celebrity status of renewable energy as a solution to the climate crisis, there has been widespread public support for CCS technologies, as they are viewed as a way of putting a plas
ter over an unseemly problem without actually dealing with the root cause (which is the continued reliance on fossil fuels). In addition, research conducted by Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment has found that when all the numbers are tallied up, switching wholescale to renewables is better (from a social, economic and environmental perspective) than trying to clean up after fossil fuels.
While these drawbacks are noteworthy, it is worth bearing in mind that the cost-benefit analysis of CCS has been conducted – to date – on the premise that the technology is being used predominantly by powerplants and factories that spew pollutants into the air. What Mr Musk is looking for instead, are ways to pull pre-existing CO₂ out of the air, rather than simply prevent the proliferation of new CO₂. Since CO₂ stays in the atmosphere for anywhere between 300 to 1,000 years, even if we were to switch all fossil-fuel powered plants, factories and cars to green alternatives, the greenhouse gases that have already been deposited into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution will continue to wreak havoc on our planet’s climate systems – unless, of course, we find a way to reduce their concentration in the atmosphere.
Therefore, Mr Musk’s initiative is, overall, a welcome one, as it is looking to kickstart a previous sluggish area in the battle against climate change. But, given the significant cost barriers faced by CCS until now, it remains to be seen whether simply throwing money at the problem will be enough, or whether more radical solutions will be needed.