3 ways carbon removal can help unlock the promise of an all-of-the-above energy strategy

“We can’t have an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past. We need an energy strategy for the future – an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy.”

– President Barack Obama, March 15, 2012

An all-of-the-above energy strategy holds great potential to make our energy system more secure, inexpensive, and environmentally-friendly. Today’s approach to all-of-the-above, however, is missing a key piece: carbon dioxide removal (“CDR”). Here’s three reasons why CDR is critical for the success of an all-of-the-above energy strategy:

1. CDR helps unite renewable energy and fossil fuel proponents to advance carbon capture and storage (“CCS”) projects. Many renewable energy advocates view CCS as an expensive excuse to enable business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions. But biomass energy with CCS (bio-CCS) projects are essentially “renewable CCS” (previously viewed as an oxymoron), and could be critical for drawing down atmospheric carbon levels in the future. As a result, fossil CCS projects could provide a pathway to “renewable CCS” projects in the future. Because of the similarities in the carbon capture technology for fossil and bioenergy power plants, installing capture technology on fossil power plants today could help reduce technology and regulatory risk for bio-CCS projects in the future. What’s more, bio-CCS projects can share the infrastructure for transporting and storing CO2 with fossil CCS installations. Creating such a pathway to bio-CCS should be feasible through regulations that increase carbon prices and/or biomass co-firing mandates slowly over time, and could help unite renewable energy and CCS proponents to develop policies that enable the development of cost-effective CCS technology.

2. CDR bolsters the environmental case for nuclear power by enabling it to be carbon “negative”: Many environmental advocates say that low-carbon benefits of nuclear power are outweighed by the other environmental and safety concerns of nuclear projects. The development of advanced nuclear projects paired with direct air capture (“DAC”) devices, however, could tip the scales in nuclear’s favor. DAC systems that utilize the heat produced from nuclear power plants can benefit from this “free” source of energy to potentially sequester CO2 directly from the atmosphere cost-effectively. The ability for nuclear + DAC to provide competitively-priced, carbon-negative energy could help convince nuclear power’s skeptics to support further investigation into developing safe and environmentally-friendly advanced nuclear systems.

CE's Air Contactor

Above: General Fusion and Carbon Engineering are developing their respective nuclear and DAC systems in British Columbia, Canada. Combined, these companies’ systems could generate carbon “negative” electricity at competitive prices.

3. CDR helps enable a cost-effective transition to a decarbonized economy: Today, environmental advocates claim that prolonged use of fossil fuels is mutually exclusive with preventing climate change, and fossil fuel advocates bash renewables as not ready for “prime time” — i.e. unable to deliver the economic/development benefits of inexpensive fossil energy. To resolve this logjam, indirect methods of decarbonization — such as a portfolio of low-cost CDR solutions — could enable fossil companies both to meet steep emission reduction targets and provide low-cost fossil energy until direct decarbonization through renewable energy systems become more cost-competitive (especially in difficult to decarbonize areas such as long-haul trucking and aviation).

Of course, discussion about the potential for CDR to enable an all-of-the-above energy strategy is moot unless we invest in developing a portfolio of CDR approaches. But if we do make this investment in CDR, an all-of-the-above energy strategy that delivers a diversified, low-cost, and low-carbon energy system stands a greater chance of becoming a reality.

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