The world’s largest carbon capture and CO₂ storage facility was switched on in Iceland today. The new Orca plant launch by Climeworks and Carbfix is a historic moment for a technology that ‘permanently removes CO₂ from the air’ and ‘can easily be replicated at different locations worldwide and on ever larger scales’.
”Orca, as a milestone in the direct air capture industry, has provided a scalable, flexible and replicable blueprint for Climeworks’ future expansion,” said Jan Wurzbacher, co-CEO and co-founder of Climeworks. “With this success, we are prepared to rapidly ramp up our capacity in the next years. Achieving global net-zero emissions is still a long way to go, but with Orca, we believe that Climeworks has taken one significant step closer to achieving that goal.’’
The stackable container-size collection units powered by geothermal energy are part of a system that injects CO₂ deep underground into rocks in a process that turns it to stone.
“Orca represents a milestone in the direct air capture industry with its capacity of capturing 4’000 tonnes of CO₂ per year, which will be removed from the air safely and stored permanently through the Carbfix natural mineralisation process,” Climeworks said.
The 4’000 tonnes is a tiny fraction of the 33 billion tonnes of CO₂ emissions the IEA estimates will be released this year. What today shows though is this technology works and is scaleable. And Orca already has the support of big names, including Microsoft and Audi, who have signed up to buy carbon credit through the facility, at prices which make it one of the most expensive carbon offsetting options available.
No silver bullet
Solutions are needed to remove billions of tonnes of emissions from the air but the potential and cost of capture has many questioning the impact it can make.
“Today the world’s biggest carbon capture facility turned on. If it works, in one year it will capture three seconds worth of humanity’s CO₂ emissions… at incredible expense. I’m rooting for it, but only a fool would bet the planet on it,” NASA climate scientist, Peter Kalmus tweeted today.
Undoubtedly an extensive portfolio of innovations are needed to turn the tide on emissions and carbon capture, and storage (CCS) can be one of those. A report by the IEA last year identified four crucial ways in which CCS can play its part in the clean energy transition. One is that it can be ‘retrofitted to power and industrial plants that may otherwise still be emitting 8 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2050 – around one-quarter of today’s annual energy-sector emissions’. In time costs are also expected to drop, which will further increase the appeal of this burgeoning technology.
CO2 removal quotas
Mitigating measures alone won’t be enough to minimise temperature rises, and a report last year by researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Girona, ETH Zürich and the University of Cambridge, said a system must be put in place to deliver the other part of the equation: removal. This means rolling out more carbon capture technologies, and ramping up reforestation efforts, among other things.
“Carbon dioxide removal is necessary to meet climate targets, since we have so far not done enough to mitigate our emissions. Both will be necessary going forward, but the longer we wait to start removing CO₂ on a large scale, the more we will have to do,” said Dr Niall Mac Dowell,” from the Centre for Environmental Policy and the Centre for Process Systems Engineering at Imperial. “It is imperative that nations have these conversations now, to determine how quotas could be allocated fairly and how countries could meet those quotas via cross-border cooperation. It will work best if we all work together.”
The team involved in the study modelled different methods for assigning quotas across Europe. Issues of cost and culpability mean it will be a challenging task to get countries to agree on the best way forward. One suggestion made by the researchers involves a trading scenario, whereby somewhere like the UK, with an abundance of space for CCS, could sell capacity to other countries.
“By 2050, the world needs to be carbon neutral – taking out of the atmosphere as much CO2 as it puts in. To this end, a CO2 removal industry needs to be rapidly scaled up, and that begins now, with countries looking at their responsibilities and their capacity to meet any quotas,” added the report’s co-lead author Dr Carlos Pozo, from the University of Girona. “There are technological solutions ready to be deployed. Now it is time for international agreements to get the ball rolling so we can start making serious progress towards our climate goals.”
And a previous article on these pages pointed to other research showing global climate targets can be met with the help of CCS technologies, and that it is possible to capture and store levels of carbon dioxide that can support efforts to keep global warming rises below the 2°C targets.