Can BECCS turn back the clock on emissions?

 By RP Siegel

In many ways, the global response to the acknowledged threat of climate change has been impressive. Renewables have taken the energy industry by storm. Hybrid and electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. A tidal wave of new, more efficient versions of everything from lightbulbs to refrigerators has swept in and rearranged the landscape. Emissions are starting to fall, even as economies continue to grow…

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the climate continues to get away from us. The latest science is saying that simply reducing emissions will not be enough to meet the goals set in Paris, to limit temperature rise to less than 2 degrees. To meet those goals today, we need to move beyond cutting emissions, to finding ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keep it sequestered underground or locked into some durable form.
One of the main pathways being considered for accomplishing this is by combining bio-energy with carbon capture and storage. The rationale behind this approach, which is identified as BECCS, is that when plants grow, they pull carbon dioxide out of the air. If the plants are burned directly or as fuel, while the carbon emitted is captured and stored, then the process can be considered a carbon-negative energy supply.
A small number of certified carbon-negative energy pathways exist, primarily biofuel producers. The most prominent example of BECCS is an installation in Decatur, Illinois, operated by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), where corn ethanol is produced. A fortuitous advantage of corn ethanol production, despite some of its drawbacks, is that it emits pure carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This makes it easy to capture. The ADM plant has the capacity to store 1.1 million tons of CO2 per year over a five-year period, a half-mile underground in a saline aquifer. This is the largest-scale BECCS project in existence, though it’s small compared to the 14 million tons of CO2 emitted per day in the U.S.
While the Decatur project, with its combination of biofuel and storage, technically meets the definition of BECCS, it does not capture the full opportunity. Since the ethanol is ultimately burned in automobiles without being captured, it cannot be considered carbon negative. It is however, a demonstration that BECCS can be done, and it also represents a cleaner corn ethanol supply chain than any other, shaving roughly 20-33 percent off the carbon intensity of the process.

The ADM facility in Decatur, Ill (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune)

Yet, according to Noah Deitch of the non-profit Center for Carbon Removal, the Decatur project is the only large scale BECCS project currently in operation.
This presents a curious situation where, on the one hand the IPCC is saying that we will almost certainly need to rely heavily on negative carbon emissions technology, of which BECCS appears to be the most promising, yet BECCS has barely been developed at all.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the lack of economic incentive. There is little market for carbon dioxide, and the cost of extracting it currently exceeds what the market price is expected to be. On top of that, both elements of BECCS: first producing, delivering and burning biomass, and then pumping the resulting CO2 underground, are complex and unwieldy processes. The overall magnitude of the endeavor is no greater than hauling countless tons of coal from deep underground and dragging it across the country, but then, vast fortunes were made doing that.
Then there is the question of where all this biomass comes from. It is possible, according to experts like Jonas Helseth of Oslo-based Bellona, to produce biomass sustainably, particularly from heavily forested areas, though it’s important to make clear that burning biomass is not necessarily sustainable and there are many ways to get it wrong. It’s a complex subject, that must address competition with food production among other factors. That’s one reason why Bellona has been supporting Ocean Forest, which is producing biomass from the sea, alongside food production. A new biofuel production facility near Oslo should be able to utilize marine biomass, which, according to Bellona, the Norwegian Airport Authority, Avinor, is “very interested in utilizing for aviation.”
Another concern that Helseth and other environmentalists raise, is that BECCS could be used as a fig leaf for fossil fuels. The concern is that the promise of potentially being able to vacuum up emissions in the future, could take the urgency away from reducing them now. However, with each new climate science report direr than the one before, it’s becoming clear that even doing everything we can, may not be enough.
Another point that Helseth makes—why focus on energy production, when there is already a clear path to decarbonization through renewables? What BECCS offers is a combination of carbon extraction with an energy supply. The same results can be obtained from some combination of renewables and restoration or supplementation of forest areas, wetlands, peat bogs and other natural carbon sinks.
So, that leaves the question of where BECCS makes the most sense, which, it would seem, would be where, and perhaps, when renewables are not available. There is and will likely continue to be an ongoing need for some form of chemical energy to supplement renewables, both for vehicles in the near term and for extended utility storage for the foreseeable future. But why not look first at those areas like steel and concrete production, along with aviation, with full-time needs, that have no clear path to decarbonization right now?

According to Science & Technology Fellow Daniel L. Sanchez, pulling CO2 from ethanol refineries like the Decatur plant is, “the best near-term opportunity,” since the carbon is readily available, making it far more affordable than pulling carbon from flue exhaust. There are currently just over 200 bio-refineries in the U.S., that mostly process corn that put about 40 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year as the result of fermentation.
Sean Thomas McCoy, who works on carbon capture at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, co-authored a paper with Daniel Sanchez on carbon capture and ethanol production. McCoy described a number of “niche opportunities” for carbon capture, such as mine tailings which exists in huge piles, containing unreacted minerals that can potentially be used to absorb CO2. McCoy also believes there are still significant opportunities for bio-based transport fuels in the U.S., along with bio-products like PLA. Like Sanchez, he feels the opportunity to capture and sequester 30 million tons of CO2 from ethanol plants with economic incentives already in place, is too good to pass up. But, still, that only gets us halfway to the goal line, since carbon is still being released.
McCoy sums it all up saying, “Conceptually, BECCS is a great idea, but practically, it’s really hard. You’ve got all the challenges of doing CCS with coal, plus you’ve got to work out the biomass supply chain.”

READ MORE: Could CO2 be the new fuel feedstock? by Mike Scott

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.