Carbon Polluters Fund XPrize to Repurpose Their Emissions


Unique plant in San Antonio converts CO2 to minerals and chemicals. Photo: Skyonic

XPRIZE—the organization behind grand technology challenges such as the race to space won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne and current contests to land a Lunar rover and a Star Trek-style medical tricorder—unveiled a competition today that tackles a more mundane yet critical challenge: transforming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into saleable products to help slow or reverse climate change. The competition’s $20 million kitty has been raised from major carbon emitters: a coalition of oil and gas producers producing high-carbon oil from Alberta’s oilsands, and New Jersey-based electric utility NRG Energy.

Entrants will have until early 2020 to develop CO2 conversion technologies on two tracks: one targeting flue gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, and a second targeting the less concentrated emissions from natural gas-fired generators. The technologies that convert the most CO2 into products with the highest net value will win.

XPRIZE Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis said in a statement that the Carbon XPRIZE confronts the fact that our “age of unprecedented technological progress and prosperity” is powered primarily by fossil fuels. According to the statement, competing technologies could incorporate CO2 into such products as chemicals, cement and other building products, and transportation fuels.

Some carbon dioxide is already being repurposed today, but the price is high. A few oil producers are using post-industrial CO2 as a working fluid to loosen up aging oil reservoirs, simultaneously boosting the flow of oil to the surface and storing the fossil carbon underground. Researchers in China are exploring a twist on such ‘enhanced oil recovery’ to produce water, proposing to sequester CO2 captured from a coal-fired power plant in Tianjin while yielding an estimated 1.4 million cubic meters of deep water annually.

Of course, burning the extra oil produced via enhanced oil recovery releases more fossil CO2, clawing back some of the environmental benefit. And a supply of CO2 for such projects is hard to come by due to the high cost of equipping power plants for carbon capture and operating the equipment.

The Carbon XPRIZE seeks to catalyze carbon capture by turning CO2 molecules into products with higher added value. Scientists are exploring the possibilities already. Austrian researchers have, for example, demonstrated the use of enzymes and electricity to convert CO2 into alcohol-based fuels. And last year a demonstration plant in San Antonio began capturing CO2 from a cement plant and converting it into minerals and chemicals, including sodium carbonate, hydrochloric acid and bleach.

Unfortunately the environmental benefits of synthesizing CO2 into something new remain dubious because capturing CO2 and chemically refashioning it requires considerable energy. In the case of the alcohol fuels, the energy requirements of the chemical processing completely negate the climate protection achieved by recycling CO2.

The ultimate irony of the Carbon XPRIZE is that it could turn out winners that still do not pencil out economically or environmentally. Meanwhile, the oil producers backing it via Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, a Calgary-based trade group, are sitting on advanced production technology that promises to profitably slash their emissions at the source.

Oilsands emissions are rising as the industry shifts from open-pit mines that scrape Alberta’s tarry bitumen off the surface to operations that attack deeper deposits by drilling wells and injecting steam underground to melt the bitumen and pump it to the surface. But options that could shrink that footprint exist.

Calgary-based oilsands process developer N-Solv has proven the effectiveness of a low-energy process at a 250 to 300 barrel-per-day demonstration site near Fort McMurray that uses butane to dissolve bitumen instead of steam. This month, the company celebrated production of its 60,000th barrel of heavy oil since starting the demonstration plant in 2014, and announced it had won its own prize—a place among 2015 honorees for Canada’s Clean50 Awards.

Eliminating steam production from natural gas makes the overall process cheaper while cutting carbon emissions per barrel by as much as 80 percent. “We can be as clean or cleaner than conventional oil,” says John Nenniger, N-Solv’s founder and chief technology officer.

Oilsands operators have conducted their own experiments with solvent-based production over the past five years, but implementation is lagging. Nenniger says oilsands producers neglected the technology when oil prices were high because they could make a profit with the older and dirtier steam technology. Weak Canadian climate policies meant they were not obligated to take a risk on the cleaner approach. And now that oil prices are low and oilsands projects are losing money, capital for new operations is scarce.

”It’s so frustrating from my perspective because every other industry is so aggressively competing to get to the bottom of the supply cost curve,” says Nenniger. “The oilsands industry says stuff, but they don’t actually do anything. Investment has been 10 to 20 fold below what it should have been.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled his country out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, arguing that complying with the treaty’s prescribed greenhouse gas reductions would hurt Canada’s energy-intensive economies. Change may be coming, however. Harper, who hails from Alberta and has strong support from the oil and gas sector, finds himself in a tight race for re-election in October.

Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party, a former Quebec environment minister who is leading in nationwide polls, unveiled plans this weekend for a cap and trade program to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050—the same goals established by climate policy leaders such as the European Union and California. As of 2013, Canada’s emissions were 18 percent above 1990 levels.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

First Place Finish for Outstanding Reporting on the Environment

SEJ-Awards-logo_1Time to toot my horn. The Society of Environmental Journalists has honoured my work in their 2015 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. I took first place in Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market, for “History, Technology, Politics and Impact of Solar Power” — a series of articles published in MIT Technology Review and IEEE Spectrum magazines:

Can Japan Recapture Its Solar Power?
Topaz Turns On 9 Million Solar Panels
Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid
How Rooftop Solar Can Stabilize the GridContinue reading

Renewable Minigrids Should Be the End Goal for Rural Poor

The percentage of population with grid access declined in many of the 20 least-electrified nations between 2010 & 2012. Image: SE4ALL

Distributed energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, should be the electrification solution for the 1.1 billion people who are not plugged into a national power grid, not just a stopgap measure. That is the message from a new global industry group, Power for All, launched in New York City this week amidst the latest gathering of the United Nations’ universal energy access program.

Power For All brings together businesses and not-for-profit organizations that distribute off-grid solutions, including solar-LED lights and home power systems. Founding members include San Francisco-based d.light; Arusha, Tanzania-based Off Grid Electric; and London-based NGO SolarAid—owner of solar-LED light global market leader SunnyMoney, which sold 650,000 lights last year.

Their message is that bottom-up distributed energy solutions should be thepreferred solution for assuring universal access to electricity because they are faster, cleaner, and cheaper than extending power grids to rugged or sparsely-populated regions.

Figures released this week by the joint UN-World Bank energy access program—Sustainable Energy for All—lend credence to Power for All’s argument. Continue reading

Hawaii Says ‘Aloha’ to a 100% Renewable Power Grid

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply.

Renewable energy has been booming since 2008 when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, and government and utility incentives ignited wind power and solar installations. By the end of 2013, renewable energy had jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent.

That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says. Continue reading

NRC Opposes European Moves to Tighten Nuclear Safety Post-Fukushima

TEPCO.120914Nuclear power plants’ reactor pressure vessels (RPVs)—the massive steel jars that hold a nuclear plant’s fissioning fuel—face incessant abuse from their radioactive contents. And they must be built with extra toughness to withstand pressure and temperature swings in the event of a loss-of-cooling accident like the one that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. As the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi showed, the next layer of defense against a nuclear release—the so-called containment vessels—can not be counted on to actually contain molten nuclear fuel that breaches the RPV.

Nuclear safety authorities have recently discovered weaknesses in several RPVs, and their contrasting responses suggest that the ultimate lessons from Fukushima are still sinking into international nuclear power culture—especially in the United States, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is resisting calls to mandate tougher inspection of RPVs. Continue reading

Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground

Adding energy storage to sites with rooftop solar power generation offers a range of potential benefits. A battery can help smooth out solar’s inherently variable supply of power to the local grid, and even keep buildings powered during blackouts. Consequently, power-conversion innovators are developing a host of new products designed to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of integrated solar-storage systems.

Some analysts project a boom in the co-location of solar and energy storage. GTM Research, for example, foresees that co-located PV and storage will grow from $42 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion by 2018. However, the market is moving slower than it might thanks to a little-discussed regulatory roadblock in the United States.

According to Vic Shao, CEO for the Santa Clara, California-based energy storage startup Green Charge Networks, tightly integrating storage with photovoltaics in some key states—including Hawaii and California—runs afoul of the “net metering” rules by which PV owners earn lucrative retail rates for the surplus power they feed to the grid. Adding storage can disqualify solar systems for net metering, in which utilities can pay their owners wholesale power rates that are several times lower than retail. “That is obviously a pretty big problem for anybody considering solar. That could kill a lot of projects,” says Shao. Continue reading

European Grid Operators 1, Solar Eclipse 0

Solar forecast for March 20 via, with previous days' generation

Solar forecast for March 20 from, with prior days’ solar output

Weather forecasts calling for bright sun today across Europe drove up tensions in advance of the partial solar eclipse that blocked the sun’s rays and plunged much of the continent into a brief period of darkness this morning. Grid operators were bracing for record swings in solar power generation because of the celestial phenomenon. Some power distributors in Germany had warned of fluctuations in frequency, notifying customers and suggesting that they shut down sensitive equipment.

In the end, while clear weather made for some excellent eclipse viewing, the electrical story ultimately felt more like Monty Python’s radio coverage of the 1972 eclipse. As if audio coverage of a quintessentially visual event isn’t absurd enough, the Pythons closed their fictitious report in the ultimate anticlimax, as a sudden rainstorm swept in to spoil the solar spectacle. Europe’s interconnected power grid brought about an equally anticlimactic ending today by delivering rock-solid stability throughout the 2.5-hour eclipse. Continue reading