This is not your parents' conversation about carbon capture

Companies such as Solidia are recycling would-be CO2 emissions as an input for constructing stronger, more durable building materials.

Energy projects that employ carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems have struggled to gain wide-scale adoption over the past decade, despite receiving billions of dollars in subsidies from governments around the world.

That said, a new generation of carbon capture projects has begun to emerge, offering hope that this technology can live up to its promise as a cost-effective tool in the fight against climate change. Here are three ways that this new generation of projects is changing the conversation on CCS.

1. 'U' (for 'use') is part of the CCS equation

Successful innovation usually starts small, iterates rapidly and most important, creates a product that people want to use. However, the initial attempts at CCS projects — which aimed to capture carbon dioxide at massive scales and then pressurize and ship that carbon dioxide to a site where it could be disposed deep underground into impermeable rock formations — have violated all of these principles.

When thinking about CCUS, or "carbon capture use storage," project developers are moving away from the concept of "landfilling" enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and are instead working to build smaller-scale projects that "recycle" carbon dioxide into a wide range of products people actually want to buy, such as fuels and chemicals, greenhouses, cements and many more emerging applications.

Many new initiatives have sprung up in recent years to try to unleash the power of carbon dioxide use, including the Carbon XPRIZE contest, the Global CO2 Initiative — even the U.S. Department of Energy is looking for ways to spur CCUS innovations.

The economics of carbon dioxide use will remain challenging so long as fossil fuels are inexpensive and carbon dioxide emissions are permitted for free, and carbon dioxide use is unlikely to provide a large enough carbon sink for the massive amount of carbon dioxide we eventually will need to sequester to meet our climate goals. But use of carbon dioxide can offer an effective commercialization stepping stone that enables technology innovation at a reasonable cost for early projects.

2. CCUS is moving homes from the power sector to the industrial sector

carbon capture
US Department of Energy

Industrial sector CCUS project at ADM ethanol production facility in Decatur, Illinois.

Over the past decade, coal power has tumbled from dominance in ways few analysts expected. As a result, many experts see the greatest opportunities for CCUS outside of the power sector, where carbon dioxide is often easier to capture and where fewer cost-effective renewable energy alternative exist.

Evidence of CCUS’s shift to the industrial sector can be seen in projects such as the ADM ethanol production facility in Illinois, the Uthmaniya natural gas processing operation in Saudi Arabia and the Klemetsrud municipal solid waste facility in Norway.

This shift also has led to new companies getting into the CCUS game, highlighted by Exxon’s announcement of a big R&D push in this area. The pivot to industrial sector CCUS also offers a positive sign that CCUS technology will act less as a competitor to other clean energy projects and more as a complement that helps accelerate economy-wide decarbonization.

3. Negative emissions could upend the CCUS conversation altogether

As it turns out, we likely will need to not just reduce carbon dioxide emissions to meet our climate goals, but also start removing excess carbon dioxide that remains in the atmosphere (PDF) from past decades of industrial emissions. To accomplish this feat, CCUS will have to expand to capture emissions from sustainable bioenergy sources (PDF), or even capture carbon dioxide from direct air capture machines powered by renewable energy or waste heat.

All Power Labs
All Power Labs

The All Power Labs team installing a biomass gasifier in Liberia that produces biochar as a co-product. Biochar can sequester carbon in soils for decades if not centuries.

What could really change this CCUS conversation is if the science and accounting protocols improve for terrestrial carbon dioxide sequestration projects (for example, landscape restoration, soil carbon farming and blue carbon) in ways that enable these projects to gain widespread adoption.

While this back-to-the-future approach for "CCUS" may sound like a stretch, terrestrial carbon dioxide sequestration was very much on DOE’s radar only a few years ago (PDF) and companies such as All Power Labs are working to build such "biological CCUS" energy projects today.

The jury is still out whether this new generation of CCUS projects will enable widespread adoption of CCUS as a tool to curtail climate change. But the approach of this new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators working to develop CCUS projects offers a much better — and cost-effective — shot at realizing the promise of CCUS as a meaningful climate solution.

The Global CCS Institute, Center for Carbon Removal and NRDC are hosting a parallel session to the Clean Energy Ministerial meetings in San Francisco on "CCUS as a complement to renewable energy" on May 31. Register here.