​Exploring the barriers to advancing ‘game-changing’ CCUS

Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies are emerging as new potential contributors to economic prosperity, and can play an important role in reducing GHG emissions and addressing climate change.

But the dialogue surrounding technologies such as CCUS - as with many energy and climate topics - is often polarized. This is something that’s being addressed by the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), which approaches this highly technical subject from a social innovation perspective.

In the conversation on carbon, the EFL says, the oil sector and sustainable energy aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a bridge.

“EFL’s broader mandate is to help address polarization on energy issues and overcome the tendency to frame a lot of the solution space in terms of ‘either/or,’” says Chad Park, lead animator at the EFL, a multi-interest collaboration that aims to accelerate the development of what it dubs a “fit for the future” energy system.

“We’re doing work in the Lab to overcome that framing,” says Park. “CCUS, we find, is an area that’s helpful to do that. Some people, especially outside of the energy industry, might find it counter-intuitive or surprising that there are technologies being developed that turn CO2 from a waste into a useful material.”

CCUS technology pulls carbon dioxide emissions from industrial processes or utilizes direct air capture, and stores or re-uses it in a productive form.

EFL is hosting a workshop on CCUS on Oct. 2, 2019 in collaboration with Capital Power, Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance (ACTia), and CMC Research Institutes.

These organizations have all worked extensively on CCUS in the past, says Park, adding “we joined forces to make sure we were building from work that they’ve already done.” Designed to be an “interactive workshop,” it has a cap of 60 attendees, Park says, adding: “This is about getting people working together on solutions in dialogue with each other.”

“We’re bringing CCUS innovators and stakeholders together with EFL Fellows and partners to explore some of the factors influencing the uptake of CCUS,” says Park of the workshop.

It will include overviews from Jason Switzer, executive director, Alberta Clean Technology Innovation Alliance (ACTia); Sandra Odendahl, president and CEO, CMC Research Institutes; and Brian Vaasjo, president and CEO at Capital Power.

While other groups focus on the development of CCUS technology, the EFL looks through a social innovation lens. This workshop will do so by focusing on solutions for stumbling blocks such as regulatory policy, public acceptance, and how to bolster momentum and political will.

While EFL sees the useful, bridge-building benefits of CCUS, when it comes to being embraced widely by stakeholders and by the general public, there’s work to be done.

“There’s still a perspective among some that CCUS is too expensive or we shouldn’t be focusing there at the expense of renewable energy,” Park says. “That’s not our perspective.

“From the perspective of our emissions challenge overall — globally, nationally and so on — this isn’t ‘either/or,’ it just needs to be part of the solutions mix,” he adds. “We can use the diverse membership of the EFL to better understand the different perspectives on the technology.”

Funding challenges for CCUS is another point of interest for EFL. While there are some sources to support early stage development, financing to fuel the various stages to commercialization of this technology is a hurdle as it is with many new technologies.

“I think the bigger challenge, as we prove the potential of some of these technologies, [is] how do we attract capital to get it towards commercialization and find markets for the technologies,” Park says. “I think that’s where a lot of the attention will be in the discussions.”

One of the aforementioned options for funding development is Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), which invests the price on carbon that’s paid by large industrial emitters in the province back into innovative technologies that can reduce greenhouse gases and enable new business opportunities.

“We invest across opportunities in Alberta and Canada’s economy to reduce greenhouse gases and grow the economy,” says Elizabeth Shirt, ERA’s executive director, policy and strategy, and also EFL Fellow. “CCUS is one of the fundamentally-critical technologies in any meaningful sustainability portfolio – particularly in a resource-based economy like Alberta’s.”

The idea of capturing carbon that’s generated through energy, electricity or industrial applications — what has traditionally been considered a waste stream — and using it as an input to create value-add products for the economy, is “a huge” change, says Shirt.

“That’s game-changing: for Alberta, for Canada, and for the world.”

ERA has invested in multiple opportunities on both the capture and utilization end of this equation. Most notably, its Grand Challenge zeroes in on “the most innovative technologies that will convert CO2 emissions into new carbon-based products and markets,” Shirt says.

Launched in 2013, Round One of the Grand Challenge funded 24 technologies with $500,000 each. In Round Two, four projects received $3 million apiece. In Round Three, one of the four groups from Round Two will be selected to receive a grant of up to $10 million to advance their technology in Alberta. The winner is slated to be announced at SPARK 2019, a conference hosted by ERA, Oct. 28-30.

“One of the really compelling aspects of carbon utilization is that opportunity to reimagine carbon,” says Shirt. “If you consider the idea that carbon is everywhere and all around us, and can be a valuable and useful product and is an input into a lot of things that we make and use every day — there’s an opportunity to reimagine what carbon is and how it can be used in our economy. We can reimagine the solutions both technological and otherwise, that are real and will be effective in combating climate change.

“Rather than focus on problems, we try to look for those solutions and CCUS is such a compelling story and narrative in that way. From a social innovation standpoint, I think the technology is really important to hold up and highlight,” she adds.

Reusing and utilizing carbon inspires a bigger conversation around the circularity concept. One of the panels at this year’s SPARK conference focuses on leveraging Canada’s rich natural resources to lead in a global circular economy, which will be moderated by president and CEO of The Natural Step Canada, David Hughes. The Natural Step Canada is a two decade-old organization focused on accelerating the transition to a prosperous and sustainable society, and designed the EFL platform to discuss, experiment, and innovate within Alberta’s energy system.

The principles of a circular economy line up with what CCUS technology accomplishes in its re-use of carbon.

“This is about going from a “linear economy” where we take things out of the earth, make things from them, and then dispose of them - to a closed-loop regenerative approach where we retain the enormous value of these materials and the end of their initial use,” says Hughes, who also serves as co-chair of the Circular Economy Leadership Coalition, which is one of the driving forces - together with the Government of Canada - responsible for bringing the World Circularity Economy Forum to Canada in 2020.

“This transition to a circular economy represents trillions of dollars in new opportunities for the global economy, and Canada needs to carve out its piece of this emerging market,” he adds.

The heart of the circular economy, says Hughes, is the removal of redundancies and obsolescence's, and making sure that products can be used longer and have the ability to be recycled and reused.

“The elegance of this approach, from my perspective, is for a long time, there were these great trade-offs and almost conflict between business just looking to advance their market and sell more products, and environmentalists who were trying to protect the long-term interests of our planet,” Hughes says.

“Well, in a circular economy, businesses, shareholders, and economists achieve resource and material efficiencies which help their bottom line while achieving objectives of environmentalists who are looking for solutions that put less pressure on our demands from the planet”

To that end, a circular economy can be the “yin and yang of environmental and economic prosperity,” adds Hughes.

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