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Report calls on California to lead on carbon capture for deep decarbonization

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Report calls on California to lead on carbon capture for deep decarbonization

California, a state frequently rocked by disasters exacerbated by a warming climate and a leader among U.S. states on actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has an opportunity to lead the development of carbon capture technologies, a new report concluded.

A combination of policy actions could support the development of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology and achieve deep decarbonization in California, according to an Oct. 22 report. The action plan from Energy Futures Initiative, Stanford University's Precourt Institute for Energy, and the Stanford Center for Carbon Storage presents a path to encourage CCS deployment for a wide range of industries that may have few other decarbonization options.

A 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report urged the world to achieve net-zero emissions by around 2050 to limit global warming to about 1.5 degrees C relative to preindustrial levels. The organization previously identified CCS as a critical technology for hitting that goal. As U.S. power generators set net-zero emissions goals, many include CCS, direct air capture or other technologies as part of their plans.

Early efforts to address climate change focused on decarbonizing the electricity and transport sectors. However, fewer people thought about what deeper decarbonization might imply for the broader economy and jobs, said Sally Benson, a Stanford University professor and a project executive for the report. As it becomes more apparent that climate change will eventually drive a need to capture carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it, policymakers have the chance to take a cheaper and more efficient route to avoid some of those future emissions now, Benson said.

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"If you have high-purity sources that could be eliminated today, with technology that's available today, why wouldn't we?" Benson asked. "Why wouldn't we choose a lower cost, easier option, rather than wait for the one that's going to be harder and more expensive?"

The action plan says expanding CCS would further in-depth decarbonization efforts in emissions-heavy sectors such as chemicals, transportation fuels, cement, plastics and rubber products. Wide CCS deployment may also enable the emergence of "new, potentially multi-billion-dollar clean energy industries" and drive job creation in California, the report said.

Big goals to require broad approach

California is targeting a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2045 before moving toward net-negative emissions. The report concluded that while California is pursuing innovative policies to achieve those goals, it "cannot afford to limit its flexibility" by not taking a broad approach to climate solutions.

The effort comes as Californians are dealing with the fallout of many of the types of disasters worsened by climate change, including wildfires, droughts and heatwaves. High temperatures in August precipitated rolling electricity blackouts across the state.

"The report, I think convincingly, [shows] the importance of developing CCS now as a potentially major option going forward," said Ernest Moniz, founder and CEO of Energy Futures Initiative who was U.S. Energy Secretary during the Obama administration.

Critics or skeptics of encouraging CCS may ask if such efforts aim to extend the future of fossil fuels, Moniz noted during an interview. The answer to that is "no, quite the contrary," Moniz said. "We've got to keep our eye on the question," Moniz said. "The question is about climate change and keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere."

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The report highlighted opportunities to pair CCS with natural gas. About 43% of the electricity generated in California came from natural gas plants in 2019, according to the California Energy Commission.

The availability of firm power from natural gas equipped with CCS could enable higher penetration of renewables on the electric grid, said Melanie Kenderdine, managing principal at Energy Futures Initiative and a project executive on the report.

"That makes it easier to do, but also you don't have to have the sort of massive overbuild of the system that you would if you're only reliant on wind and solar and [battery] storage," Kenderdine said in an interview.

California as proving ground for CCS

An analysis included in the study identified 76 existing electricity generation and industrial facilities in California as candidates for CCS projects. The facilities represent nearly 15% of California's current greenhouse gas emissions.

California's economy is one of the largest in the world and may present an opportunity to set an example for setting similar policies elsewhere. Franklin Orr, another Stanford professor and former undersecretary for science and energy at the U.S. Energy Department, said California can show others how CCS fits into a broad portfolio of solutions that include things such as renewables and energy efficiency.

"If we have CCS available, then we can deliver the energy services that all of us take for granted and really depend on in a way that's cheaper than without it," Orr said.

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The action plan aims to spark motivation among companies in the private sector to decarbonize while simultaneously unlocking economic opportunities. California is a suitable CCS testing ground for several reasons, including good geology for storage and aggressive targets on emissions amenable to capture, Kenderdine said.

Uncertainty presents obstacles

Despite what California might have going for it in terms of project viability, there are no operational CCS projects in the state, the report noted. As of September, five announced projects were in various planning and development stages, but many hurdles remain for potential new projects.

The report's authors said part of the issue is that California policies "paint an ambiguous picture of the future role" of CCS technologies for some project developers and investors.

"To be fair, this is not just California; there are mixed signals," Moniz said of policymakers' stance on CCS. "There are many examples of uncertainties that make it very difficult for project developers to make long-term high capital commitments."

The report called on California policymakers to affirm support for the use of CCS to meet emissions targets, streamline permitting, issue guidance for carbon dioxide storage and more initiatives to make projects in the state more attractive. It also identifies clusters of emissions-intensive facilities in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area that could serve as hubs for rapid emissions reductions using CCS.