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Storing CO2: Planning Tomorrow’s Net-Zero Infrastructure

September 10, 2020 Work Area: Carbon Capture

Experts say that carbon capture to decarbonize energy-intensive industries and reduce historical emissions is an essential part of the world’s pathway to a net-zero emissions future.  What is often overlooked, however, is the urgent need to develop CO2 storage infrastructure in saline formations today. After all, how would capturing CO2 from factories or the air reduce emissions if we cannot permanently dispose of the CO2? In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, limiting the availability of CO2 storage would not only increase the complexity, but also the cost of the energy transition.  

Governments not only need to commit to a decarbonized future, they also need to plan and build the enabling net-zero infrastructure. For carbon capture, a carbon management market must be established that is enabled through a network of CO2 transportation options and geologic storage sites  

Some 2000 carbon capture facilities are expected to be necessary globally by 2050 to reach net-zero CO2 emissions, capturing and permanently storing more than two billion tons of CO2 annually. That is up 100-fold from today. In the US, there are currently 12 carbon capture projects in operation, with more than 30 under development. The CO2 storage potential in saline formations in the US equates to more than 500 years of current emissions. 

For carbon capture projects to be successful, many parts of the value chain have to align; carbon capture, transportation, and saline geologic storage involve extremely different technologies. A suitable storage site must be found and connected with the capture facility – and all parts must work like clockwork to not impede industrial operations. Those industries needing to deploy carbon capture – utilities, cement, and steel manufacturers – have little to no experience in these areas. Absent support and experienced partners, it is difficult for these companies to realize such large and technically diverse infrastructure projects on their own. Direct air capture, expected to scale to a billion-ton-industry,  will also need sufficient geologic storage and CO2 transportation options to realize its full potential.  

A recent analysis by the Great Plains Institute has found that long-term, coordinated planning for US carbon management infrastructure can maximize decarbonization opportunities while minimizing cost and land use. At the same time, public education is important to increase awareness and acceptance of carbon management infrastructure. 

The amount of infrastructure necessary is considerable; according to a Global CCS Institute analysis, experts anticipate the need for 125,000 miles of CO2 pipeline and 400 storage sites globally. In just 30 years, we would need to build between 3,200 to 4,500 miles of CO2 pipelines, and characterize and develop 10 to 30 storage sites every year. This is in addition to building alternative CO2 transport mechanisms via zero-emissions truck, rail, and ship to move CO2 that cannot be transported via pipeline.  

Some say that this scale of infrastructure build-out is impossible. That is not true. In fact, over the past decade, the average annual build rate of natural gas pipelines was 5000 miles. The rate of development of oil and gas fields has averaged 350 per year from 2000-2010.  Historic examples show that it is possible to build the infrastructure necessary for a net-zero future. In fact, the US has some 5,000 miles of carbon management infrastructure. 

The good news is that two regional geologic CO2 regional storage projects in planning have recently made significant progress. The Northern Lights Project in Norway and the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line in Canada. Their model: shared CO2 transport and disposal infrastructure that achieves economies of scale, lowering cost and barriers to entry for new industries and companies to capturing their carbon. Aiming to collect large amounts of CO2, they exemplify the next generation of carbon disposal infrastructure; bigger, better, and business-driven with government backing.  

Northern Lights involves offshore storage in the North Sea, able to receive CO2 from many energy-intensive facilities in Europe via pipeline and ship. The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL) is built to collect some 14.6 million tons of CO2 along its route from multiple facilities, but recently started operations with just two connected facilities capturing 1.5 million tons annually. Building infrastructure with excess capacity to accept additional  CO2 in the future makes it easier for additional facilities to capture their carbon and tap the ACTL as a carbon management option.  

The ACTL received roughly $340 million in grants from the federal and provincial government. Northern Lights is asking for upwards of $2B to cover construction and 10 years of operation. The Norwegian government is expected to make its final investment decision later this year. Government support for innovative technologies attracts private investment by demonstrating that the government is willing to invest in climate-forward innovation and long-term infrastructure. Most importantly, it also solves a chicken-and-egg challenge: CO2 transport and storage infrastructure must exist, or at least be certain to be built, before CO2 capture projects can be committed. But the CO2 capture projects must also exist or be certain before the transport and sequestration infrastructure can be committed.

Despite being the leader in carbon capture, the US lacks policy mechanisms to enable the needed infrastructure build-out. Encouragingly, Congress is considering several bills to invest in geologic storage and CO2 infrastructure development. The Fossil Energy Research and Development Act, under consideration in the House, and its companion in the Senate, the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology Act of 2019, would boost geologic storage R&D funding and establish demonstration programs. The recommendations of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis include significant support for the commercialization of carbon capture technologies, including Section 503 of the Clean  Future Act, which recently passed the House as a bipartisan amendment to the Moving Forward Act (HR 2).  Among other things, Section 503 provides $2.5B funding for geologic storage over 5 years, including for the commercialization projects of large-scale saline storage sites, as well as activities exploring, categorizing, and developing storage sites and necessary transport infrastructure.   

For CO2 transport infrastructure, a combination of low-interest financing with grants tied to building additional capacity for future growth could impel the private sector to build open-access CO2 infrastructure to connect large-scale storage sites to multiple sources of CO2. In the longrun, establishing geologic storage utilities which operate in a regulated market and are responsible for transporting and storing CO2 could be a viable business model.  

Creating a net-zero CO2 economy requires new forms of carbon management infrastructure. History shows that it is possible, but the right policies will be needed for the necessary business models to evolve. Congress, regulatory agencies, and state governments need to plan and put policies into place that will facilitate building the infrastructure needed for a net-zero emissions future today.  

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