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High stakes for carbon removal

Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, notes the impacts of the climate crisis before looking ahead to the future of carbon dioxide removal during a webinar on the subject hosted by the West Virginia Center on Climate Change Tuesday night.

Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, went biblical to describe the extreme wildfires, flooding and freezing devastating the country more and more as the climate crisis intensifies.

“We’re having our family stroll through the Book of Revelation this year,” Friedmann said.

But Friedmann and other panelists looked ahead more than around during a webinar hosted by the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Climate Change Tuesday night on carbon dioxide removal solutions. They are keenly aware that failing to decarbonize at an unprecedented scale in the years to come will result in even more apocalyptic climate impacts.

“If you don’t think this is hard, you’re not paying attention,” Friedmann said.

The future of carbon removal, though, is wide open and could see West Virginia play a key, job-creating role in decarbonization efforts.

“We’re going to need to make a bunch of stuff here,” Friedmann said.

Carbon management and removal are poised to become the largest markets in history, Friedmann said.

Friedmann noted that some 100 countries have net-zero emissions goals and alluded to a March report from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a London-based energy and climate analysis nonprofit, that more than a fifth of the world’s largest 2,000 publicly traded companies have made a net-zero commitment.

Friedmann presented a PowerPoint slide that called carbon capture, use and storage technology “mature, cost effective technology for CO2 reduction & removal.”

But carbon capture, use and storage technology, which gathers and compresses carbon from emission sources for reuse or underground storage so it will not reenter the atmosphere, has been too uneconomical to be widely deployed. It has also faced criticism from some clean energy advocates fearing that it could be used to justify lingering fossil fuel dependence.

The Global CCS Institute, a think tank that aims to accelerate carbon capture and storage deployment, reported earlier this year that there were 26 operating CCS facilities worldwide, with 34 in early or advanced development.

Friedmann, though, cited U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports from recent years including carbon capture and storage technologies as a critical component of decarbonization models.

Politicians representing constituencies like West Virginia — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., most prominent among them as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman — have embraced developing carbon capture, use and storage technologies as a way to keep coal in the energy mix.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August would authorize more than $12 billion for carbon capture technologies, a provision taken from Manchin’s Energy Infrastructure Act that served as legislative text for key portions of the bill.

West Virginia Public Service Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Lane also is interested in carbon capture technology and recently asked Manchin to support federal funding for installing carbon capture technology at the Mountaineer coal-fired generating plant in Mason County.

But a briefing document that PSC General Counsel Jessica Lane indicated was discussed at a meeting between Lane and Manchin last month, says that a carbon capture project to treat the slipstream of just 20% of the plant capacity likely would cost $850 million to $1 billion to construct.

The document acknowledges that federal funding of close to 100% of project capital costs would be needed, since the unsubsidized cost for customers would be unsustainable.

The document was first obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog group that supports a transition to clean energy.

American Electric Power deemed carbon capture technology uneconomical in its request for $448.3 million in cost recovery to make environmental upgrades at three in-state coal-fired plants federally required to keep them operating past 2028.

The PSC granted that request earlier this month after Kentucky and Virginia utility regulators deemed the upgrades uneconomical.

Friedmann noted that Microsoft, Amazon and Shopify are among the companies to buy direct air capture carbon removal. Direct air capture is a technology that captures carbon dioxide directly from the air.

The carbon removal market, Friedmann observed, needs much greater structure and definition.

“We need to be able to quantify CO2 removals and validate them in the marketplace,” Friedmann said. “Today in the market, there’s no supply, there’s no demand, there’s no transparency, there’s no regulation and there’s no actual exchange. Other than that, the market’s perfect.”

Friedmann predicted that the cost of direct air capture technology would come down “pretty fast” as more is deployed.

Fellow panelist and Wayne County native Erin Burns, executive director of Carbon180, a Washington, D.C.-based climate-focused nonprofit, emphasized the difference between carbon capture, which is the process of capturing carbon from a smokestack or flue before it enters the atmosphere, and carbon removal, which takes carbon from the atmosphere and doesn’t have to involve fossil fuel production or extraction.

“For a long time, people have talked about opportunities around employment in places like West Virginia around point-source carbon capture,” Burns said. “But I think that that promise has never appeared in any meaningful way.”

Burns argued that carbon removal could be more impactful in West Virginia from forest preservation and expansion to steelmaking and direct air capture facility work as that technology is scaled up.

“Carbon removal is not a silver bullet for West Virginia’s future,” Burns said, “but I think it could be an interesting part of it.”

The webinar took place just hours after the U.S. Department of Energy announced $14.5 million in available funding to leverage existing low-carbon energy to scale up direct air capture technology combined with reliable carbon storage.

The agency called advancing direct air capture deployment critical to slowing climate change and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The department intends for the funding to facilitate engineering studies of advanced direct air capture systems capable of removing 5,000 tons of carbon per year from the air — the equivalent of electricity used by more than 900 homes in the United States for one year.

“[T]here are a lot of people working very, very hard to try to not do it poorly,” panelist Emily Grubert, deputy assistant secretary for carbon management at the Department of Energy, said of carbon removal. “There are pathways where this is done really well and really provides an important net benefit to the world. We can get there, but it’s going to be a hard road, and we need help.”

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony@hdmediallc

.com. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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