This is the second installment of our Science at the Edge series, where we explore the benefits, tradeoffs, and risks associated with innovative solutions while unpacking questions about ethics, policy, or public perceptions.

Carbon capture technology is seeing a resurgence in attention and money as part of the solution to combatting climate change. But questions remain about its effectiveness, cost, and role in the energy transition, especially in hard-to-decarbonize sectors. In a roundtable conversation led by Institute Director Kristan Uhlenbrock, we discuss how the technology has evolved, how it is being used, and the current deliberation of its benefits and tradeoffs.   

Watch a video of this discussion on our YouTube channel.


Carbon Capture

KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: This is the second installment in our Science at the Edge series where we're exploring new ideas and innovation in science and technology through the lens of how it's influencing society and vice versa. Today we’re talking about carbon capture.  

Carbon capture technology has seen a resurgence in not only attention but also money as part of a potential solution to combating climate change. There are many questions that we have about its effectiveness, its cost, and its role in transitioning some of those really hard-to-decarbonize sectors. 

Our guests are: 

Will Toor, the Executive Director of the Colorado Energy Office. He's been there since 2019. Before joining the Colorado Energy Office, he had a number of roles and hats, including serving as county commissioner and mayor of Boulder. He also has a Ph.D. in physics.  

Professor Ahmed Abdullah is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, as well as having an appointment in engineering and public policy. He's also a professor of energy policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He works on questions related to energy policy and the challenge of deeply decarbonizing our electricity sector. He also has a Ph.D. in engineering and public policy.  

To set us up with some of the acronyms you’ll see: 

CCUS stands for carbon capture utilization and storage. 

DAC stands for direct air capture. 

Ahmed, can you give us a big-picture overview? Describe to us what these technologies are. 

AHMED ABDULLAH: It depends on what sources you're capturing the carbon from, and which sinks you're putting the carbon into, and that could actually dictate your support or opposition as a member of the public. It could also dictate the amount of incentives or revenues that you could get from the technologies.  

Broadly speaking, these are technologies that aim to remove carbon generated by human beings and use them or fix them in a way so that they wouldn't be contributing to our greenhouse gas problem. 

It could be capturing them from industrial facilities, oil and gas wells, and power plants, or just taking them out of the air directly. And then the use part is putting it into the ground where it will remain permanently underground for centuries or actually using it for a variety of things -- carbonating beverages or making carbon nanofibers, or, of course, enhanced oil recovery using the CO2 to generate more oil from depleted oil fields. It's a really wide suite of technologies.  


Reaching Climate Targets

KRISTAN: Will, you are heading up our state planning here in Colorado around our greenhouse gas roadmap and Colorado has done work recently here related specifically to this technology. So how do you view this technology as a piece of the bigger part of your work?  

WILL TOOR: To give it some context, our legislature has adopted climate targets of a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero by 2050. The administration has developed a greenhouse gas roadmap that is really the strategic planning for how we can achieve those targets. 

Our work to date has largely focused on the 2030 target and the initial roadmap identified the five sectors that are responsible for the large majority of our GHG emissions. These are electricity, transportation, industrial emissions, methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and combustion of fossil fuels in buildings. 

We built a sector-by-sector policy framework aimed at achieving those 2030 targets. The core of our approach relies on decarbonizing electricity generation. We're on a trajectory right now, where based on adopted plans by 2030, every coal plant in the state will be retired, largely replaced with wind and solar, and this will lead to about an 85% reduction in GHG emissions from the electricity sector. 

Then we are trying to maximize the benefits of that through widespread electrification and other sectors, including transportation, widespread use of heat pumps in buildings, as well as opportunities for electrification in the industrial and oil and gas sectors. But that's not going to get us all the way to the 2050 target. 

Electrification and renewables in the electricity sector are key near-term strategies, but if we're going to achieve net zero by 2050, we're going to need to look more broadly than that. There's a whole set of emerging technologies, including geothermal electricity generation, geothermal heat pumps, manufacture and use of clean hydrogen, and the potential of both CCUS and DAC that we think are very important going forward. 

We're in the process right now of doing the first major update to the greenhouse gas roadmap. We're calling it the Roadmap 2.0 process. We've gone through the initial public process and will have additional opportunities for public input throughout the rest of the fall before completing it towards the end of this year. As part of that, we are really trying to map out the role of these emerging technologies. That's the context we're looking at for carbon capture.  

KRISTAN: Ahmed, would you pull that bigger picture up for us? We have targets not only here in Colorado, but globally that we are trying to achieve. So take this technology lens a little bit bigger. What do you see happening as far as trends of use and uptake, not only here nationally but internationally? Will you give us that landscape assessment? 

AHMED: Most of the studies suggest that we will need to deploy relatively significant amounts of carbon capture that could be bioenergy. So this is growing crops and then harvesting those crops specifically to make power. Could be DAC. Canada's 2013 long-term strategy documents, for example, say we might need up to 200 million tons of removal per year by 2050 from direct air capture. But these are all theories. These are all pathways that are a model, but it says nothing about actual implementation. 

In terms of implementation, we're seeing large projects being announced in places like the US and Canada, driven entirely by policy. The Inflation Reduction Act, the infrastructure bill in Canada, the huge Canada growth fund, and investment tax credits that are now being proposed are making jurisdictions that can't see a pathway without oil and gas. They're making jurisdictions that value industry and don't want to deindustrialize, whether it's cement or steel or ethanol, so they are looking at carbon capture. 

Really the driver of the renewed interest is the policy initiatives over the past two or three years that have come to the floor in North America and Europe. The discussion is growing, but not at the same level in places like the Middle East or China, which could actually deploy a lot of carbon capture. 

The discussion is relatively muted because the plans for net zero by 2050 are also relatively muted, if they exist at all. So it's important to take jurisdictional and existential facets into account. Places like Alberta and North Dakota don't see a future without oil and gas playing a huge role and therefore they're doubling down on carbon capture. What that means is that their deployments hopefully will generate a lot of lessons that other jurisdictions can then utilize to get the cost down further and implement this more successfully. 


Emerging Technology

KRISTAN: Talk to us a little bit about where this technology has advanced, and put that into the context of technologies that are more proven. Where are we on a spectrum of technological innovation? 

AHMED: It's difficult to say because of the sheer diversity of the technology. Some of these are not proven and some of these we've been using for decades. The ones that are proven have been scaled up. Other forms of carbon removal like DAC are less proven in the sense that we're just building pilot and the first commercial demonstration plants now. 

The problem here is that these are all large projects. With large projects, the chances of things going off the rails are inherently higher. Project management and stakeholder alignment matter in these big projects. You probably need to integrate into an industrial facility. Unless you are doing direct air capture, you'll need to transmit the carbon with a pipeline or with a ship, and then you'll need to store that. That's a lot of stakeholders along this value chain, and they all need to be aligned over the course of construction, but probably also over the course of the operation. 

So even if they're commercially ready technologies (you could go to Mitsubishi and buy post-combustion carbon capture today), just getting these giant projects with their huge capital and upfront capital costs up and running is very hard. In other words, engineering projects that have fluids running in them by carbon capture are as hard to operate as they are to plan. It takes years to get to your specified capture amounts. So while the technology is ready, the integration of the components, and running it to spec is less ready. 

KRISTAN: Will, any thoughts on examples of this technology? How are you thinking about the readiness of proven technologies and new and emerging large-scale technologies?  

WILL: The entire energy transition is really about new technologies growing to scale. We've seen that with wind and solar over the last 20 years, and improvements lead to remarkable price declines. Effective decarbonization of the electricity sector has been done in a way that would have been kind of impossible to imagine in an economically viable way 20 years ago. 

Similarly, we've seen the remarkable price declines in lithium-ion batteries that are allowing both stationary energy storage and electric vehicles to really start moving to scale. And I think there are lots of questions in all of the emerging technologies, including carbon capture, hydrogen, geothermal, and advanced nuclear, about which ones are going to evolve to a place where they can really be successful at scale in the marketplace.  

Now that said, when we were developing the initial GHG roadmap, we were looking at carbon capture as something that might play a role post-2030, but we didn't pay a whole lot of attention to it as we were thinking about the next decade. 

Then we started hearing from multiple industrial operators in the state about projects they were working on that they thought would come to fruition in this decade. We started to hear more about the Holcim Lafarge plant near Florence, and there were feasibility studies that they were engaged in on potential large-scale carbon capture. We began to hear from the ethanol plants in the Yuma and Sterling area about potential carbon capture projects. Ethanol is one place where carbon capture is probably among the most cost-effective because the fermentation process creates a relatively pure CO2 stream, so it's easier to capture. And we started to hear from the Southern Ute Gross Fund, which was working with Rivers Capital, a Boulder-based company, on the initial work to develop what's known as an alum cycle power plant on the reservation. I think that is a very interesting technology that has been proven on a small scale. There are 50-megawatt power plants that have been built and I think it is a very interesting technology. It's probably the one approach to carbon capture in the power sector that has the greatest chance of success. 

So, we started hearing about all of these projects that were at some level starting to move forward. And that's when we really decided we need to pay much more attention to the medium-term prospects for carbon capture in the state and start thinking about the appropriate policy framework for both encouraging and regulating them. 

AHMED: The discussion is radically different in other parts of the world, right? So, it's very interesting to hear this Colorado perspective. There are things that will happen, regardless of what you do as a policymaker. Solar and wind will keep going down, batteries will keep going down, and possibly even nuclear if done on a large enough scale.  

I think the carbon capture discussion, the renewed interest, is not just because policymakers are facing the prospect of losing industrial sectors if they don't get this right. I’m in Ontario and we're desperate for carbon capture because we have a lot of steel and cement. We've got no way of supporting those companies to get to their net zero commitments. I think the net zero by 2050 target helped crystallize the urgency of this in the minds of policymakers all around the world. And the fact that it's existential for some sectors. If you don't deploy it, then you will deindustrialize. So jurisdiction is also kind of one reason for this renewed focus.


The Economics of Carbon Capture 

KRISTAN: Can we put some context around cost a little bit? Do we have the economic scale of the cost?  

AHMED: We have already invested double-digit billions in North America and most of it has failed. So we have to be realistic about that and learn from the failures. In terms of what we need, we ran a study with a group of experts who deployed these technologies in the past -- people who built the plants in Canada and the US. They all said you need to build 8-10 of these demonstration projects that are a billion dollars each in order to sort out the kinks they're facing. 

So you're talking $10 billion to build the plant, plus the associated infrastructure, pipelines, and things like that would also be a substantial investment. These numbers are only for stuff that we've had experience with in the past, these large post-combustion capture facilities. The alum cycle turbines that Will mentioned, or direct air capture, would have radically different cost profiles. But we're talking about multi-decadal, double-digit billion-dollar efforts on a national scale to get these technologies to the point where an investor could make a credible decision to go forward or not. 

That's not an easy proposition. At the same time, it's an order of magnitude smaller than the Inflation Reduction Act measures, so we have to keep things in perspective. This is doable, difficult, and necessary according to some industries.  

KRISTAN: We've got the Inflation Reduction Act. What are some of those other mechanisms that we've been seeing to help drive funding for this?  

WILL: Certainly the biggest investments will be from the uncapped tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act. The increases to the 45Q tax credit, the increase for direct air capture, I believe, up to $185 a ton. Those are going to have a profound impact on the investments that take place. The Infrastructure Act also has funding in the single-digit billions, as opposed to the tens of billions level, for essentially demonstration projects, and hubs for carbon capture. Investment in the carbon pipeline infrastructure will be important in terms of moving some projects forward, but it's really those IRA tax incentives that are going to be the big dollars. 

From a state perspective, there are a couple of relatively small funding sources for carbon capture. We have an industrial clean air grant program that has $25 million dollars available in industrial tax credits, which will generate a little under $200 million dollars over the next decade that a wide variety of industrial decarbonization technologies are eligible for. These are competitive tax credits to be used for things like electrification, industrial heat pumps, clean hydrogen, and carbon capture.  

In Colorado, we will see incentives that could move carbon capture along through our industrial emissions reduction rules. Our air quality control commission is adopting rules that will achieve at least a 20% reduction in industrial greenhouse gas emissions sector-wide by 2030, and there is currently a rulemaking process moving forward. In the draft rules, carbon capture is an eligible technology. There is a trading mechanism among companies that while it requires companies to essentially maximize cost-effective investments on-site and to focus on other air pollutant reductions, especially in low-income and disproportionately impacted communities, it also allows trading. This could allow capital from multiple companies to help a larger carbon capture project move forward at a particular industrial operator.  

AHMED: I’m excited to hear about all of that. I would say that one major problem with past CCS projects is the credibility of incentives issue. The incentives that were on offer were usually delayed and not very large. They were huge amounts of money, but not large in the context of what the investors needed to make those decisions. Now we're seeing three or four different approaches to incentivizing CCS. It'll be very interesting to see in a few years which one succeeds. 

The U.S. approach has been that beefed up, turbocharged 45Q. Canada has taken the concessional financing route, so we give large grants upfront at very low-interest rates. Canada has taken the approach that the upfront capital cost of these projects is the big problem, so we're going to reward you for building them, whereas the U.S. will reward you for capturing the carbon. It's more delayed, but the amount is so large that investors will still gravitate towards capturing more carbon and getting more money.  

We've also seen in some jurisdictions, like Alberta, North Dakota, and Louisiana, a lot of development on the regulatory framework side. Alberta, for example, decided 10 years ago that the pores underneath the ground, the subsurface into which you're injecting this carbon, belongs to the Crown. So you no longer own the pore space underneath your house. Alberta also decided that long-term liability cannot exist with companies that might go out of business, so that needs to rest with the government. How do we fund that? Every time you inject, you give us a certain amount of money. It's like a stewardship fund that allows the province to keep monitoring that the CO2 has been stored. So, we're seeing a lot of very interesting legal changes as well as all the incentives. It's not all about money. It's also about certainty in terms of the regulatory framework.  

We have three examples, Norway, Australia, and Alberta, where the regulatory frameworks have become extremely well developed. That will also increase certainty and help people invest in these technologies. 

WILL: I want to follow up on that by saying that is an area that’s very active in Colorado right now. In our last legislative session, there was a bill passed that gave, what was at the time our Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the authority to seek regulatory primacy for Class 6 injection wells, which essentially means going through a process with the EPA to allow the state to regulate the injection underground of carbon dioxide. 

Currently, it would have to go through an EPA approval process. Given the lack of funding and staffing that the EPA has, that could be a very long process. Moving to a state regulatory process gives us more control over the process and the ability to ensure that Colorado's values around environmental protection are respected in that process, regardless of what happens with administrations at the federal level. It also allows more certain and timely processing.  

There was another piece of legislation that moved forward that broadened and changed the mission of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission which changes it to the Energy and Carbon Management Commission (ECMC). We are seeing that commission as playing a central role in both geothermal electricity as well as carbon capture. 

AHMED: Many of these clarifications of the regulatory framework have nothing to do with oil and gas, right? Let's say you're Bill Gates and you want to build a billion-dollar plant that takes carbon from the air and puts it on the ground, and you want to do it entirely out of the goodness of your heart. I don't think he's made that commitment. I encourage him to do so! But you need regulatory certainty. You need to know the government also has the expertise to monitor, verify, and penalize if you do something wrong. So we really do need much broader regulatory experience in the states, especially states that don't have a lot of experience with this. 

That regulatory experience takes decades and needs to be carefully cultivated. What we're talking about with some of these regulations has nothing to do with the oil and gas industry. They are states trying to develop in-house expertise.  

What does it mean to inject something underground? What does it mean to keep it locked permanently? How do we verify that? And how do we measure the tonnage of carbon that we're sequestering? These have much broader implications than just the specific sector.  

WILL: I very much agree with that. The tax credit legislation we did at the state level that allows the competitive tax credits to be invested in carbon capture excludes projects that are using that carbon for enhanced oil recovery. We wanted to make sure that we're essentially having both permanent sequestration of the carbon and relatively straightforward greenhouse gas accounting, which I think is much more difficult if you're doing enhanced oil recovery (EOR). We're not looking at banning EOR, but it is not the place where we would be putting investment. We also need to do a lot of work on accounting for these processes. 


Regulating Carbon Capture

KRISTAN: Ahmed, are there other regulatory framework examples that you're seeing emerge? 

AHMED: Pre 2010 - 2011 regulation worldwide was on a case-by-case basis. That is never a good idea in any industry, right?  It's just a nightmare. In the past 10 years, we've seen governments like Norway and the United Kingdom say that we don't trust your companies to live long enough to tell us that you're sequestering carbon for decades. So we've seen those countries decide that after you close the site, and after you monitor that site for a certain number of years, 15, 30, and then the liability is kind of transferred to the government. That's the Alberta approach.  

After 15 years of closure, you get a certificate from the government saying we now own that CO2 and we own your facilities. In places like California, you need to monitor for 100 years. It's a much longer monitoring period in terms of the biggest challenge which has been pore access. In other words, who owns the pores? Underneath that storage site or proposed storage site, Alberta has really been the only radical player here that said we own all the pore, whereas places that negotiate leases for that pore access. It's going to take a while for states and provinces to decide what's right for them. It's going to take a while to decide which storage sites to prioritize because that will actually affect the regulatory framework you choose. And you don't want to choose a site that happens to be unique so that the regulatory framework only applies to it. 

There are federal provincial issues, and I'm sure there are federal state issues in the US, right? It's going to take a while for regulatory clarity to emerge. Alberta's has been the most innovative, but also the most hardheaded. “We're going to do this. We're going to do this. We have the majority in the legislature so we're going to pass it.” This is how government ought to work in a democracy, but it also has generated some reactions, as you can imagine. The other good thing Alberta did, I would say, is splitting the value chain. In other words, you could be a CCS player and do no capture. You could just own pipelines, and you could kind of charge a fee for service. If someone wants to inject their carbon from their ethanol plants, you tell them the guidelines, what the carbon should look like, and then you charge them for the time that they move through your pipelines. 

You've got hubs forming where people are responsible just for the storage and not the transmission or the capture. Splitting the value chain in Alberta has been very innovative because it meant that you as a developer are no longer responsible for everything. You don't have to negotiate with people in a different municipality or a different county who don't know or trust you. That splitting of the value chain has allowed coalitions and consortia to emerge that are more organic.  

KRISTAN: Is that helping with permitting and siting? Will splitting up the value chain make it more nimble or difficult? What sort of infrastructure is needed? What sort of regulatory framework is really being talked about right now when it comes to permitting, whether that's the kind of pipelines and then the storage? 

WILL: I would say that there are a lot of challenges that Colorado still has to figure out. We're at the beginning of that process. The storage side will have to have the most significant public input and a lot of technical work done over the next year or two to develop the application to the EPA for regulatory primacy. I think we'll be answering a lot of questions in that process. 

When it comes to a variety of other questions, we have not touched on pore ownership or pipeline permitting in this year’s legislative session. The question of which ones of those may require additional legislation, and which ones will be able to be addressed purely through regulatory decision-making by the Energy and Carbon Management Commission is still an open question. 

AHMED: Permitting will always be longer than we'd like, and I think rightly so. Siting these things will be difficult because we know where the sources are, but the transmission corridors can always be a matter of debate. We've also seen that the people running your project really matter. For example, in Petra Nova, Texas, which was this large coal-fired CCS retrofit project, made it part of their standard culture and operating practice that they report spills of everything. If it's not water, you report it, even if it's a cup of something. I think that's the thing that needs to be paid attention to most and these initial projects ought to have a long permitting period. The development people ought to be questioned because we know how to handle CO2.  

We've been transmitting it through pipelines for decades. This is technically not difficult. But as we know, you need to over-design and gold-plate everything in these first projects, especially if they're designed to be transmission pipelines that cross several states. I'd rather they be overengineered. I'd rather we learn a lot from how to construct these things well. And I'd rather we spend a bit more time permitting them than the alternative. And I think we will end up doing that.  

I think the people who are projecting, and I'm pulling numbers at random here, a gigaton of carbon removal by 2030 for example, really need to step back and think of what that involves in terms of fleshing out the permitting issues and the regulatory frameworks. These things take a decade to build. We need to be much more humble as analysts designing energy system transition pathways about CCS's role. And I completely agree that this will be a multi-decade contributor to 2050 rather than a quick fix. CCS is not a quick fix. It's a very delicate, fragile thing that needs to be very carefully managed if we want to radically expand it, and we definitely want to avoid accidents and legal challenges. 

I also think a lot of it rests with the developer. For example, in Canada, you don't need a federal impact assessment if you're building provincially unless you cross a body of water or an international border. As a developer, you can do things to eliminate some of the permitting challenges in terms of your siting and your overall project execution plan. A lot of this rests with developers having a very clear vision and having stakeholders who are aligned with them from the go.  


Carbon Storage

KRISTAN: What is it meant to store? What are some storage options that are currently on the table? 

AHMED: Use and storage are the two options. Use is technically everything but storage, so it could be in everything from the food and beverage industry to the fire extinguishing industry. It could be used for making synthetic fuels, which is where you take that CO2 and electro-catalytically reduce it to methane gas, and then you could actually make gasoline and diesel. But when we talk about storage, we're talking about permanent, geologic sequestration. 

Storage would be way beneath groundwater in depleted oil and gas wells or depleted aquifers. It could be storing it in other geological formations that we've studied extensively. As you can imagine, these are rocks with tiny pores, just like the shale gas comes out of, so you'd be putting the CO2 back into those rocks. We've gained a huge amount of experience, thanks to the U. S. Department of Energy, on how to characterize these formations, how to estimate roughly how much they could store, and how to drill the first few testing wells in order to determine whether storage is feasible. But it's a monumentally difficult task. 

I could give you many anecdotes of companies that went through the regulatory process, thought they could store, and found leaks that they have to plug all over the place. So again, this is a delicate, long-term process.  

WILL: I want to add that what I'm told by the people who understand much more about geology than I do is that Colorado is a relatively good place for potential carbon storage, both in northeastern Colorado, as well as potentially in southern Colorado. The Colorado School of Mines is working with partners and just received an approximately $30 million dollar grant from the US D.O.E. to do a much more precise characterization of potential carbon storage options in southern Colorado. I think we're going to learn a lot more over time about where the best opportunities for storage are in the state. 


Benefits and Tradeoffs

KRISTAN: Okay, let's talk about the potential tradeoffs of this technology. Specifically, I'm thinking about some things I've read about air quality versus the ability to capture carbon, obviously to reduce climate change. 

AHMED: It depends on what the source is. If you've got that ethanol plant that's just venting, and a 99% pure CO2 stream up a stack, there are no air quality implications and profoundly positive climate implications of taking that pure CO2 stream and doing something. And we've had plants do this in the U.S. for a long period of time. It's not new. However, if you're talking about CCS being used to extend the life of a coal plant or being used so that we could burn dirtier coal, then the air quality implications could be profound. Coal plants tend to be large and long-lived. CCS will only capture maybe 90%, so it gets more expensive to capture more and more of the emissions. But 90% is a sweet spot where you're making substantial climate benefits, but it’s not 100%. 

I think that will dictate what gets deployed in the end, as has been mentioned already in this conversation. Policymakers have wizened up to this thanks to the net zero by 2050 targets and thanks to public pressure. We've now developed a two-lane system for incentives. Are you using this to further oil and gas extraction or using this to permanently sequester CO2? The incentives could be different when it comes to 45Q, right? 

Some states could make coal obsolete with other regulatory measures. Even if you have 90% capture, a giant coal plant will not align with your net zero by 2050 goal. There are other regulatory and policy measures that could dictate which sources get that carbon capture retrofit. 

Will there be tradeoffs? There are always tradeoffs. And our task as engineers, analysts, and policymakers is to make sure that we're maximizing the good and minimizing the bad. And we have to pay attention more to the bad because we know the risks of blowback and the risks of unintended consequences. 

WILL: To add a little bit more onto how Colorado is thinking about this -- we clearly have some significant air quality challenges. The Denver metropolitan and north Front Range area is in violation of federal ozone standards and has been struggling for a number of years to come back into compliance. 

We know that we have many disproportionately impacted communities that are impacted by very localized pollution from industrial facilities. So, as we've built out our industrial regulatory approach on greenhouse gas emissions, part of what we're trying to do is to really value and focus on the reduction of other air pollutants in addition to carbon dioxide. 

Under the proposed industrial GHG standards, you would have to first show that you had maximized cost-effective emissions reductions onsite before you would be allowed to be trading for CO2 reductions through CCUS at another site. And you would still be required to do additional efforts to reduce other pollutants that impact the region and the immediate neighbors when it comes to the electricity sector. Colorado already has a requirement for utilities to file clean energy plans of 80% emission reduction by 2030 as part of that process. 

Our utilities already have approved electric resource plans that will retire every coal plant in the state by 2030. We are not going to be using CCUS on coal plants. Even just from a purely economic perspective, simply operating and maintaining existing coal plants without CCUS, which adds cost, is somewhere around four to four and a half cents per kilowatt hour. Whereas utility-scale wind is coming in at around two cents a kilowatt hour. There's no world where it would make sense, even just economically, to keep those coal plants operating.  

Where I think there's a potential role in the electricity sector, is as we think post-2030 about how we get from the 85% decarbonization pathway that we're on to something approaching 100% carbon-free. Our governor has a goal of 100% clean electricity generation by 2040. We're currently doing analytical work to map out a variety of different potential trajectories to achieve that. Could there be a role for carbon capture in that? I think that there could be.  

Again, the technology that I think is most interesting there is the alum cycle. There's a company called Net Power that has done the early commercialization of this, where you would essentially be burning gas in a pure oxygen environment, and the combustion basically gives you H2O and CO2. You can cool it down to condense out the water vapor and end up with a fairly high concentration CO2 stream. What's interesting about it is there's still an energy cost to create that pure oxygen, but it doesn't have to happen at the same time that you are doing the combustion so you could use low-cost wind and solar to pay that energy cost. It potentially becomes a very interesting technology that would have minimal emissions, at least as long as you're doing a good job of eliminating any upstream methane emissions in the process.  

So, will we see CCUS playing a major role in the power sector? Certainly not in that first 85%. I think they're one of a number of technologies, including long-duration storage, use of clean hydrogen, geothermal electricity generation, and advanced nuclear that are sort of all in contention, and all have major questions about which ones are going to be able to scale.  


Community Engagement and Public Perception

KRISTAN: Tell us about any sort of thoughtful new ways of doing business, and thoughtful strategies around community engagement when it comes to some of those big things that you think should be done. 

WILL: The one thing that has increasingly become part of the legislative structure in Colorado is a particular focus on the impacts in disproportionately impacted communities, like communities that have been redlined in the past and communities that are subject to high levels of air pollution today. Legislation that passed this year gave the ECMC, the authority to seek regulatory primacy. There's specific direction around both engagement and disproportionately impacted communities, and ultimately there has to be a finding that there are no net negative impacts in those communities before a project could be approved. I think that structure is something that is very important and that we will see going forward. 

Also, I'm hoping we'll learn a lot from another piece of legislation this year which required the energy office to work with outside consultants to develop a carbon management roadmap for the state that would do more to both quantitatively and qualitatively understand the potential role of a variety of approaches to carbon capture and carbon dioxide removal. As part of that, there is a requirement for very broad community consultation as well as working with workers and labor to make sure that we're looking at this not just from a perspective of emissions reductions, but from a perspective of how it affects communities. What opportunities does it give regarding good jobs for workers? Particularly for those workers who are potentially seeking jobs and have skills that they've used in the fossil fuel industry and are perhaps transitioning. 

AHMED: First, there's a real need for humility here. There are a lot of studies about carbon capture and public perceptions of carbon capture but they don't really tell you much because people don't know the technology very well. Second, it could really depend on the whole value chain of the project. What are you capturing from and what are you doing with the carbon? If you're talking to someone who is very anti-oil and gas and you’re capturing from a refinery and using it for enhanced oil recovery, you're probably going to get opposition. But if you're talking about direct air capture of CO2 and permanent sequestration, that opposition might become support. The nature of the technology is that support or opposition will be fragmented.  

This is not a new nuclear power plant or a new wind plant, so you're not coming into a political economy and changing it by interfering with people's habits, infrastructure, or aesthetics. We know where the sources are. People who work in those plants usually live around them, so there's usually a political economy that exists that is supportive of industry or infrastructure development. 

You might not get opposition for precisely the reasons we just heard. You might get a lot of support from people who want to transition from the process industries to a new process that actually helps to build. We need to be very humble. I say that because engineers and project developers are often really bad at this, and they don't need to be.  

I can see one of my tasks is teaching my students not to be this bad at it, but community engagement is an art, a science. It needs to be open, transparent, accessible, two-way communication, literally co-producing the future with the people you're talking to. It can't be imposing things, whether they are values or actual pieces of steel. The community engagement things we got wrong with nuclear, we also got wrong with wind, and it set us back substantially, especially with wind. And in some places like Ontario, it's unclear if we'll ever get to deploy more, precisely because of opposition to wind. It's a complete tragedy.  


What's Next?

KRISTAN: In our final question – tell us about something you’re optimistic about or something that keeps you up at night.  

WILL: One of the things I've been very excited about over the last several months has been conversations that we've been having with the state of Wyoming, a state that we've often clashed with on energy policy in past years. But our governor and the governor of Wyoming a few weeks ago signed a memorandum of understanding for the two states to work together to advance direct air capture. I think that bipartisan collaboration isn't something we see very much and it is one of the things I'm most excited about right now in this space. 

AHMED: I'd say the sheer amount of activity -- the crystallization of the 2050 target in people's minds and in countries' minds, local jurisdictions, regional, and global, gives me a lot of excitement. The fact that we've got 25 new projects being proposed in Alberta. Ontario's doing a lot of work on CCS as well to deal with its industrial sectors.  

Another thing that gives me excitement is the fact that we have a lot more students who don't want to be just engineers. They want to be engineers and policy analysts and do some economics. 

In terms of skepticism and challenges, I think it’s where the rubber hits the road. We need to permit many, many megatons of carbon removal. I think permitting and public opposition could rear their head and we need to be prepared.  



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