26 Mar 2012

Capturing carbon and selling it: Marc Gunther’s e-book is both inspiring and a reality-check

Written by Jim Pierobon

Author Marc Gunther has a new e-book — Suck It Up — that does an excellent job of spotlighting and explaining technologies with the potential for capturing carbon dioxide in the air and selling it to end-users who need more of it.

Marc Gunther's new e-book can be had on Amazon for a 'whopping' $1.99. CREDIT: Marc Gunther

Because CO2 exists everywhere in the atmosphere, one trick to building a sustainable business is to site the capture system close to the end-user markets. One such market that exists in spades right now is underground injection to enhance oil recovery.

While underground injection of CO2 produces more hydrocarbons (bad) the ability to score a net reduction in carbon in the atmosphere could be THE holy grail of climate change (very good). Even naysayers would find it difficult to credibly oppose this economic opportunity, with or without a carbon tax or cap and trade system, although either would help.

The technologies that seem to harbor the most additional funding potential and real-world scalability are among the 11 finalists for the Virgin Earth Challenge created by Sir Richard Branson and Al Gore. It aims to award $25 million to whomever can devise a “commercially viable design” that can achieve a “net removal” of anthropogenic, atmosphere gases to materially stabilize the Earth’s climate.

The three companies linked below are working hard to connect the dots. Gunther provides just enough context and background on each. And he does so in the equivalent of about 50 pages in length of a quality paperback book. At $1.99 for your iPad or Kindle, it’s a no-brainer to buy, read and understand how close we’re getting, or not, to capturing carbon.

Carbon Engineering’s business model in my view appears to stand the best chance of getting traction. It’s based on what founder David Keith describes as “physical carbon arbitrage”: build carbon-capture plants in places where there is cheap natural gas (e.g. close to today’s prices in the U.S. of about $2.50-$3 per million cubic feet), low-cost labor, land and construction costs combined with strong demand for CO2.

If it were only that easy.

Work on “negative emissions technologies” is nothing new. Companies around the world are busy with their own R&D. You’ll read about them in the book, along with the scientists who doubt any such approach can work.

You’ll also see widely different estimates of the projected costs of capturing and selling a ton of carbon dioxide: for a little as $50 to $200 a ton all the way up to $1,000 a ton.

Gunther shares a perspective that many professionals concerned about climate change join him in expressing: there’s a moral hazard in even talking about air capture because carbon emitters will be less likely to reduce emissions now if they believe that the problem can be pushed down the road.

Let’s hope not.

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