The first large-scale carbon capture facility is now online. But will it make a difference?


I read somewhere that the ocean sequesters the largest amount of CO2 (maybe front algae and such?) which makes me think, maybe we shouldn’t fill the oceans with plastic?

I read somewhere that rain-forests sequester high amounts of CO2, which makes me think, maybe we shouldn’t cut them down? And maybe we should invest more in forest management to avoid wild-fires getting out of control?

I read somewhere that energy density of batteries isn’t where it needs to be, relative to jet fuel, to make all-electric planes at scale. Maybe investment in high-speed rail would be better in the long-term? High-speed rail could more easily be powered by electricity from green sources.

I read somewhere that hydrogen is a promising alternative to natural gas for industrial use like metal works. Maybe we should switch to PV → H2 for industrial uses instead of fracking the ground and destroying ground water.

If more companies allowed remote work, maybe less people would need to live in cities. If less people lived in cities maybe the traffic in those cities wouldn’t be as bad? And to my previous point, public transit (mainly trains) would also offset a lot of CO2. Why doesn’t LA have a good transit system?

Everything I’ve mentioned isn’t a silver bullet. The only way climate action will work is if we attack it on all fronts. The lack of substantial action on climate change is so frustrating.

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Yes. Enhanced weathering is one researched approach for carbon capture. Basically you mine huge quantities of suitable rock, crush it, and let it expose to the atmosphere. It has a different set of downsides – lower energy consumption but massive mining operations. Again, carbon capture is a technology that can make sense if we have exhausted all means of reducing CO2 production and still need to remove more from the atmosphere, but the type for carbon capture is in 20-30 years at the earliest, possibly never.

But the renewable energy they consume could instead be used to replace fossil fuel generation. If not coal, at least natural gas. As a research project maybe it still makes sense, but unquestionably taken alone it will result in more CO2 emissions than if it didn’t exist. To do otherwise they would have to operate only on the still rare occasion where renewable electricity production outstrips demand, but my completely uninformed guess is that if they did that they would never be able to pay back the CO2 debt from construction.

All that may change: any feasible plan to zero carbon electricity production is going to lead to a moderate amount of overproduction because it will probably be cheaper to produce excess electricity to reduce the need for storage. My guess is that we will find better things to do with the excess electricity than run carbon capture plants, but I wouldn’t rule it out. So I don’t object to building things like this for R&D purposes, but I think it is very likely it will never be useful and it certainly isn’t helping matters in the near future.

That’s a given.

The armchair carbon capturer in me says: why don’t we grow algae equivalent to 4 tons of co2 and pump it down an exhausted oil well?

Also what happens if we take the 4 ton equivalent of other vegetation and dump it in an acidic tailing pond - do we get an artificial bog and would it capture rather than just slowly re-emit?

I’m not sure you’re right about that. Of course it’s going to have a footprint of its own, like every manufactured thing, but I can’t find anything that says it’s not basically guaranteed to be net-negative over its expected lifetime. If this were a blue-sky technology and we truly didn’t know if it’d work at all, I’d still be okay with building one of them as an experiment, but I don’t think that’s the case here.

But this is what I was actually trying to push back on in my original post. I’m not calling for a massive all-world effort on building these things—I’m just saying you can always say “but let’s not do anything new because it might be possible to have greater short-term efficiency by incrementally redistributing those resources to the status quo.” That’s sensible enough in a lot of contexts, but I don’t think the carbon crisis is the right place for that kind of analysis paralysis.

There are very possibly arguments based in economics, physics, logistics, or global public-opinion-shaping that would make this technology unsuitable on a big scale. We should all be ready to chuck it overboard if it doesn’t thrive as a useful part of the decarbonizing ecosystem. I’m just saying, the potential upside vastly outweighs the infinitesimal fraction of the world’s concrete output this represents.

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Being Iceland I would think it’s geothermal or hydro. The video says this location is powered by a nearby geothermal plant. I’ve heard aluminum production described as electricity arbitrage (aluminum is 40% of Iceland’s exports). I would imagine for something like carbon capture the power source would be a major factor.

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I have fantasies of growing huge, mighty forests, then cutting them down, then dumping the logs into the ocean. (Apparently there are lots of plants that sequester carbon faster than trees, but that’s what I visualize: big barges full of logs are cooler than bundles of sawgrass.)

Screw the Hadean depths, I say! So what if a constant rain of logs disrupts your bougie volcanic vent ecosystems a little. You’re extremophiles, deal with it!

Whenever I’ve shared this with forestry or ocean biology people, they get the same “Oh god, another one of these motherfuckers” look I have when people come to me with dumb ideas about my academic specialty, so I guess there’s probably some reason (or a thousand) we shouldn’t do that. But I’m still going to keep pitching my TED talk on it.

(Not a comment on your idea; just glad to know there are other Monday-morning carbon sequesterers out there.)

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First, I agree that CCS is first and foremost a green-washing strategy, and that the geothermal energy spent in this plant would be more effective by being used to directly remove coal generation. There’s no question this was built as a sinkhole to sequester some bad PR.

But let’s wave the magic wand really hard and wish upon every star, and the world’s energy production becomes coal and oil free in the next decade. Other carbon emitters will continue to exist, and we still have the problem of a huge amount of carbon that’s already in the atmosphere.

No one solution is going to fix the problem. Maybe we need a few experiments like this today to help learn what it’s going to take to reduce it for real?

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lots of very windy islands have green power to spare, but no way to efficiently export it.

I think having a wide range of decarbonizing ideas is useful.

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For about 270,000 people Reykjavík is a surprisingly large city - it seems to sprawl out for ever these days and people drive a lot despite the bus system being much better than those here in the UK. The vehicle fleet also contains a very large number of big SUVs and trucks with many families having two or three cars.

As you say, outside of Reykjavík, populations are dispersed and there is only a limited intercity bus service (no trains), so you’re either in for a long drive, or you get on a plane and take a carbon-spewing hop.

Alongside that, the trawler fleet is huge and very busy, all of which burn diesel.

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The one in the article has been built alongside the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant just east of Reykjavík. There is a second plant called Carb Fix at Svartsengi on Reykjanes next to the Blue Lagoon.

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Many organisms of varying size (including humans) sequester carbon as their skeleton. If they do this enough in the ocean then it forms a layer of mostly calcium carbonate. Chalk and limestone, hundreds of metres thick. If you could farm these microorganisms you could do so on a truly enormous scale. And scale is what is needed after all.

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Norway went from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest in the world within a generation, all on the back of hydrocarbons. Neither of the big parties wants to be the one that cuts off the tap that has given Norwegians a standard of living most of us can only dream of.

There’s an excellent NRK drama series called Lykkeland (State of Happiness) which covers the period when oil was struck in the North Sea and how it utterly upturned a quiet, introspective, poverty-wracked country. Well worth checking out.

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Diatoms will save the earth.

I don’t think growing humans and dumping them to sequester carbon will pass any ethics committee.

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Yeah, this seems like a whole lot of effort for little result. There are some much cheaper and experimentally encouraging options, I’m a fan of ocen fertilzation. Sequesters carbon, creates a large quantity of phytoplankton and other microorganisms that can also feed other, larger beings before dying and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Still some problems: it would decrease surface acidity, which is good, but increase benthic levels, which may be bad. Every attempt to run an experiment has met with massive opposition from environmental groups who consider it the same as dumping toxic waste, so I guess we’ll never know if scales up, but it looks like one of the most promising options of cleaning up this mess we’ve made of the planet.

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What do the oceanologists think of this idea? Vast biomes, unexplored, sacrificed to nodule mining and carbon farming?

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Wasn’t there an old idea once about chucking the trees down into abandoned mineshafts? I haven’t heard about that in a long time.

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Since it’s mostly oceanologists who are running the studies, they seem to be in favor of running the experiments and then analyzing the data, but they can’t get approval to run the experiments to determine the impact. The few experiments done have been favorable, with the acidification swap cavet, but we don’t know all the effects because the experiments can’t be run to determine them. I texted an old girlfriend who went on to get a doctorate in marine biology, and her reply was “can’t see the obvious harm, needs more research.”

This isn’t very much like nodule mining, which clearly destroys what may be a delicate and vital ecosystem, this is more like fertilizing a barren plain or dying forest that just needs nutrients (in this case, iron) to thrive. The most cost-effective method, in fact, is just to make upwellings of nutrient-rich waters as happens naturally around every island and reef.

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Not really, because it is situated in Iceland.
About 85% of the total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from domestically produced renewable energy sources. Roughly 65% geothermal and 20% hydropower. The remaining 15% (again, this is total primary energy) is fossil fuels used for running cars, lorries, boats, ships… but, save the odd farmstead in the middle of nowhere, not for generating electricity.

(The breakdown for electrical energy is roughly 70% hydro / 30% geothermal.)

Which still makes for surprisingly large CO2 emissions per capita, but regarding electricity Iceland is as close to 100% renewable as it gets.

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