Carbon capture and storage technology isn’t a "silver bullet” — but it could play an important role in reducing emissions from California’s electricity and industrial sectors, according to a new report from the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) and Stanford University.
California’s geological structure, which includes thick layers of sand and shale, as well as other factors, offer the potential to store 60 million tons of carbon dioxide — equal to total emissions from the state's electricity sector in 2017 — annually, for 1,000 years, per the report.
The landscape for CCS has changed enormously in the years since the Paris climate agreement was signed, Ernest Moniz, CEO and founder of EFI and former U.S. Secretary of Energy, said during a webinar launching the report. Science has pointed to the need for more aggressive decarbonization targets, in turn leading to "a greater realization about the fact that we need every option that we can generate for [a] low-carbon [future] and that means a very, very broad portfolio of technologies.”
California is at a crossroads in terms of CCS development, the report said. The state has strong climate policy support and natural resources that give it an edge with the technology, and five projects at different stages of planning and development, but it does not currently have any operational CCS projects.
However, the state has strong drivers for CCS, according to the report, including ambitious emissions goals, the support offered by the Low Carbon Fuel Standard’s inclusion of CCS projects, as well as the potential of CCS to create clean energy jobs. The report pinpointed 76 electricity generation and industrial facilities in the state that could be equipped with the technology. It came to the conclusion that CCS in California could reduce emissions in the state by as much as 15%, Melanie Kenderdine, managing principal at EFI and co-lead of the report, said during the webinar.
"In short, CCS in California — while not the silver bullet — could be a major contributor to meeting the state’s emissions reduction targets,” Kenderdine added.
The report also compared two scenarios for meeting California’s 2030 emission reduction goals — one that hinges on increasing renewables and battery storage, and another which allowed the possibility of natural gas combined cycle facilities equipped with CCS technology. It found that having 4.2 GW of natural gas and CCS would reduce the total solar and battery capacity needed on the system, as well as saving $750 million per year.
The researchers looked into the cost implications of capturing carbon dioxide from different emission sources and found that about 20 million tons of CO2 per year could be profitably captured from things like hydrogen generation, ethanol facilities and refineries, Sally Benson, report co-lead and professor at the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University, said during the webinar.
On the other hand, "there’s another 40 million tons that with today’s incentives are just simply not economical,” including larger sources like natural gas plants and cement plants, Benson noted.
CCS technologies face other challenges in California, including what the report describes as policies that are ambiguous about its role in the future. While the state has issued studies looking into how CCS could contribute to decarbonization, the technology is not eligible to participate in the state's CO2 cap-and-trade program and is excluded from regulatory resource planning processes. Moreover, the planning and permitting requirements for CCS projects are specific and relatively new, and projects are heavily reliant on policy incentives.
The report identified several near-term and longer-term measures that could help California make use of its CCS potential. In the near term, it suggests that the state issue some sort of policy signal — like an executive order — on the need for CCS, as well as improve permitting processes. On the regulatory front, CCS could be incorporated into the California Public Utilities Commission’s integrated resource planning and long-term procurement planning processes.
Looking further to California’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2045, the report recommends incorporating CCS into the cap-and-trade program to provide projects with additional financial incentives and providing projects with state support for front-end engineering design and feasibility studies. In addition, it suggests setting statewide carbon removal targets to guide state agencies.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is focused on "a very integrated approach” to meeting the state’s climate goals, Kate Gordon, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, said at the webinar, and views carbon dioxide removal as a necessary part of that larger approach. For a long time, California’s approach to climate policy has been focused on bringing down emissions through programs and regulatory standards, with less of an emphasis on carbon dioxide removal and climate resilience — both of which are now real priorities for Newsom, Gordon said.
"We clearly have to be getting this stuff out of the atmosphere at the same time that we’re aggressively reducing risk from existing impacts and aggressively reducing future emissions,” Gordon said.