Imagine you’re sitting on a tree branch on a nice sunny day… 🌞
But this tree branch is the only
thing between you and an expansive void of nothingness permeated by ever-receding blotches of
Inconvenient… right? 😕
The only thing more inconvenient would
be to start cutting down the branch for some reason???
On the one hand, you could sell the
wood. But on the other, that really DOESN’T make sense if you consider the cost of cutting down
🔑: Sadly, us humans
won’t consider the cost of cutting down the branch.
What's with this bizarre story
about a branch??? 🤔
The story of us humans and the branch is actually
related to a lot of environmental problems around the world. I’m going to explain how
it relates to an increasingly-studied environmental technology: carbon
Section 0: Wait Whaaaaaaaaat????? 😮
If you haven’t
heard of carbon capture, this section is for you :-) Otherwise, feel free to skip it!
First, things first. Carbon capture is
technology to separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from air. This air can be pulled right out of
the sky (direct air capture). Or maybe it’s pulled out of a
specific location, like a factory
point source carbon
Now why do we want to separate CO2 from
Two words… Climate. Change.
CO2 gas in the atmosphere is the primary cause of climate
change. CO2 naturally exists in the atmosphere, but humans have been adding more at an
These companies don’t all work on the
separating-CO2-from-air part. If you think about it, you also have to do SOMEthing with the CO2 you
pull out of a smokestack or the atmosphere.
One option is to pump the CO2
underground, where it stays there for millions of years. This is known as carbon
A sub-option stores CO2 in plants or oceans, but it's
controversial how well we can control nature. 😕 Still, nature already cycles billions of
tonnes of CO2 per year by itself!
Another option is to use the CO2 to
create something useful. Like fuels,
food, building materials,
etc. This is known as carbon utilisation.
All these approaches together are called carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS).
It’s kind of the big ‘label’ given to the industry: “The solar industry is up 2.82 points on the
NASDAQ and the CCUS industry is…” 👔
Big acronyms aside, the key idea is
that more companies than ever are working in this industry.
But it’s not ‘growing’ as planned…
Section 1: Why Isn’t CCUS Growing? And
what about the tree at the beginning???
Here, I talk about a
LOT of different problems in
CCUS industry. I put engagement > brevity. If you want a shorter alternative,
see here and
skip to the next section!
Not great progress… so I started
researching WHY this is true. I found four major
causes.Let’s start with the one
that involves the tree 😁
Problem 1A: Unclear benefits,
The idea behind cutting down the tree branch to sell it for wood
is… it’s pretty short-sighted. It doesn’t consider the
cost of cutting down the branch— not just having one less branch, but falling
into the expansive void of nothingness permeated by ever-receding blotches of light. 😱
This is THE biggest issue with CCUS today:
🔑: The purely FINANCIAL
costs and benefits of CCUS
don’t consider its FULL costs and benefits.
The equivalent of the ‘valuable
branch’ is the valuable atmosphere and its greenhouse effect. This is what lets us have a livable planet
compared to every other icy rock we’ve seen in space. And cutting down the branch is like putting
Mount Everests of CO2 into the
atmosphere, degrading its value.
But what IS the value of the atmosphere???
It’s hard to tell the value of its benefits.
If we mess up the atmosphere too much, all life dies. Ie. the trillions of dollars in
the world are all useless. That makes the atmosphere
pretty valuable. 🤔
On the other hand, we’re not likely to mess
up the atmosphere to the point where all life dies. So what are the costs if the planet gets 1.5°C
hotter on average? Or 2°C hotter on average? The answer is unclear.
I mean sure, there are such huge differences
in those approaches that it makes zero sense to compare them based on just their cost… but for the
people paying for CCUS at the end of the day ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
So it’s like there’s a giant billboard
that says: “Sell wood for $10/tonne!” It gives us an incentive to cut down the branch. But the cost of
cutting the branch is unclear. (The expansive void we could fall into is far away.)
Now, it’s worth noting that some countries
around the world will artificially put a price on CO2 emissions — ex: via carbon taxes, carbon permits, etc.
But by and large, CCUS’s financial
costs outweigh its financial benefits. Even though it’s a unique environmental technology that can
remove CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere. And even
thoughCCUS is feasible in dirty industries like steel production, where no other environmental technology is. We
still continue trying to cut down the
🔑: Until the FINANCIAL
benefits of CCUS are CLEARLY greater than its costs, it will be underfunded.
Problem 1B: CO2 is only used in niche
Another issue for CCUS is that it’s getting
a bit… old. 👴
CCUS has been around since 1972, when it was first used to boost
production of everyone’s favourite profitably-overexploited-resource: oil 🤑 Since then, only 26
commercial CCUS plants have been built…
For context, other inventions launched in the 1970s
were: the first cell phones, floppy disks, portable cassette players, Apple Computers, and VCRs. EACH
of these has sold billions of units from who KNOWS how many plants.
Why has CCUS not grown like other technologies from the
Well, it’s only had one big market. The vast majority of CO2 has always been used for increasing oil extraction. CO2 gas is injected into
an oil reservoir, which forces more oil out — this is called CO2-based Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).
Though this approach has been working
for decades, it has a few issues:
You’re capturing CO2 to be sustainable
and then you use it to extract more oil??? 😶 It’s like putting ‘protective’ coating on the tree
branch, but that makes the branch brittle and it cracks. To be fair, EOR CAN be
carbon-negative. (Ie. CO2 pumped underground
> CO2 burned from oil use) But it’s often not, because…
Only 25% of CO2 used for EOR comes from human sources (ex:
factory smokestacks). The rest is just extracted from underground
deposits, just like oil. This is non-renewable and creates CO2 emissions.
CO2 can only be profitably used for EOR when oil prices
above $70 / barrel. This is because you
need to balance the cost of pumping CO2 into the ground with the value of the extra oil that can be
sold from this.
CO2 for EOR represents the vast
majority of the current market for CO2: 206 million tonnes/year. But this is nowhere near the 5+ Mount
Everests of CO2 we emit/year. It’s more like 0.12% of Mount Everest.
🔑: We’d need uses of CO2
to be 1000x larger to
the CO2 we emit.
Though there are other issues with
EOR, I’ll stop here. And though there are other uses of CO2 (ex: to put in carbonated drinks), they’re
MUCH smaller than EOR.
So, we can only use CO2 for a niche
application under niche conditions, of which a niche subset is sustainable… Talk about small scale!
It’s like we want applications of CO2 to be like large factories while they’re more like DIY
crafts for toddlers. 😖
Checkpoint: Two more problems to go!
Problem 1C: New CCUS projects are
hard to pay for
I know what you’re thinking…
“Money is all material possession, man! 👿 I’m here
to save tree branches!” 🌴
But this isn’t toooo boring and financial. Here’s the caveman explanation :
CCUS need big machine need
build build need $$$$
No really! 😁 The first big expense for CCUS projects is just all the physical
infrastructure that needs to be built.
For example, a pipeline to transport CO2
costs over $1 million per
kilometer. It might be built between a factory smokestack and a well where it can be pumped
By the time you’re done building all
the physical infrastructure, new CCUS plant cost tens of millions of dollars! It’s like we’re putting
up braces to support the tree branch, but only golden braces will work. 😭
And then come the regulations and risk. I’ve
only found statistics about this for
storage, but multiple industry experts have told me about the issues in carbon capture and
utilisation as well.
Within carbon storage, safety monitoring costs can be
than operations (pumping CO2 underground). We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars
per year per carbon storage site.
techniques vary widely, as they’re
negotiated on a project-by-project basis with regulators. They often involve sensors on
wells (ex: to measure temperature, pressure, etc.) and taking seismic data where CO2 is pumped
On a sidenote, these negotiations with regulators can take up to 5
years to get the right permits to build carbon storage sites. (Fig 4–2)😱
Because there haven’t been many CCUS
plants, the risks are unclear. Industry
experts told me insurance companies charge tens of
millions of dollars in premiums over the lifetime of carbon storage projects.
And insurance like this is important in
the tiny chance that CO2 leaks (escapes from where it was stored) and companies have to pay heavy
fines. It’s like paying insurance for the risk of slipping off the tree branch (unlikely)
while we’re actively cutting it down (already happening).
And lastly, governments like the US may
charge companies ‘safety deposits’ that can be over
million. (pg. 124) This is
before companies can even get permits to dig a carbon storage well. These safety deposits make sure
that any environmental damage
can be cleaned up, even if the companies go out of business.
Notice how I didn’t even mention operating
costs yet. All the highest costs are for safety and initial construction.
🔑: Starting a CCUS plant
is harder than running it.
Think of it like a death race just
to get to the booth where you buy the admissions ticket.
But here’s the thing… these costs are pretty normal for oil and gas operations too. It just IS really expensive to get steel to
build pipelines and dig up dirt to build wells, regardless
of whether you’re putting CO2 or natural gas in that infrastructure. 😕
The difference is that carbon storage companies don’t have
NEARLY as much funding available as oil and gas companies. They’re less able to bear these
Carbon storage projects have high interest rates
(up to 15%) on loans. I wasn’t able to find typical
interest rates for the oil and gas drilling. But for the solar projects in comparison, interest
rates are around
5–8%. And loans are important because
they don’t have any restrictions — companies don’t have to give up equity
(decision-making rights) or depend on one specific government for funding.
Carbon storage projects cannot generate funds from the
market. There are no public CCUS
companies (public = listed on stock exchanges for anyone to invest in). Though, there are
giant oil and gas companies with CCUS demo projects that are public.
Carbon storage projects have relied heavily on government
grants historically. Many past projects have had the majority of their funding
government grants. This is typical for higher risk technologies in early development. But,
government budgets change. And policies to support
are virtually non-existent in the developing world. 🚫
Fancy words aside, CCUS companies currently
get money like this:
It’s worth mentioning that though I
don’t have data for all other types of CCUS efforts, they’re very likely to have their own financing
It’s a little bit like our economy supports
cutting down tree branches with trillions of dollars while it supports branch restoration with some
morally-pretentious high-fives… hypothetically speaking, of course 😬
This is a huge startup barrier. And economies of
scale are strictly a pipe
dream. LITERALLY… the Alberta government made news in the industry when it said that it
would build a CO2 pipeline at scale to unlock economies
of scale (pg. 26)
🔑: CCUS is hard to pay for
because it has high costs to build infrastructure, but few reliable sources of $$$.
P.S. Almost done with the
negative problems! Just one last part and I’ll talk about more positive solutions! ✨
Problem 1D: Government policies
for CCUS are… non-existent 😮
Remember how I just said above that it
takes 5 years to negotiate carbon capture permits with government regulators? That’s just ONE symptom
of the larger issue: governments aren’t ready to regulate CCUS.
It doesn’t matter which part of CCUS you
look at, you’ll find government policy issues EVERYwhere:
There are FIVE countries around the world with CCUS-specific
regulations. Yes, FIVE 😶
2. It isn’t clear which part of the government deals with
CCUS. For example, 14 state government agencies + 7 local government agencies + tribal
government agencies may be involved in approving permits for carbon storage sites in California (pg. 117)
I know it sounds boring, but imagine having
to play hot potato with thousands of documents and dozens of colleagues just to get PERMISSION to
3. Safety standards for CCUS technologies may take years to
update. For example, Canada updates its National Building Code once every 5 years.
Why do boring building codes matter? They
determine material safety standards for anything in a building. Including materials that could be
created out of CO2 as a new form of utilisation. But if the building code says you can’t
use CO2 to create a brick, for one, there goes your solution.
4. Government policies make the future very uncertain for the
industry. For instance, take carbon storage. Carbon storage companies can face fines in
case CO2 leaks (from underground back to the atmosphere), but some countries don’t define how long
they’re responsible for this.
Would you want to build a project when you
could face millions of dollars in fines at any time in the future, even if you shut down CO2 storage
at a site 100 years ago??? 😕
It’s like a ghost haunting you…
5. There are limited regulations to monitor whether
carbon capture is done well. What do I mean by well? Well, it’s hard to know how much CO2 is
captured and how long it stays captured.
In regions like California, regulators just
estimate how much CO2 a forest would capture based on its region, though this can be off by millions of tonnes of
Now, I know what you’re thinking… who cares
about the paperwork?
But this actually matters a lot. The amount
of CO2 captured is the entire basis of how much people get paid, how much people can keep emitting,
and so on. This is the ONE number that can’t go wrong… and it does.
And let’s say people perfectly measure
the tonnes of CO2 captured. Most carbon capture happens via forests. Forests have been burning down more and
more recently. In a single wildfire, millions of tonnes of CO2
can be released back into the atmosphere! Or issues with pests. Or issues with logging.
The point is, there are a lot of ways for CO2 capture to be impermanent
just a few ways for it work out ideally. Yet, companies paying for ‘carbon offsets’ pay for
the ideal scenarios because that’s what government regulations are based on. No wonder they don’t
trust CCUS investments!
Going back to the branch, it’s not just that
companies aren’t funding branch repair. Companies aren’t funding branch repair WHILE the branch is
being cut down faster than ever 😱
WOW… those are a lot of issues! You’re
probably thinking, “NO WAY this technology will ever get anywhere!” 😵 Sorry for the negativity dump!
But here’s the opposite positivity dump…
Section 2: Giant Heap of Existing Solutions
I’ll now explain current
efforts to improve carbon capture and stop cutting down our metaphorical branch!
Here, I’m going to group solutions
into three general categories:
‘Hubs’ — meaning lots of CCUS infrastructure in one place
Government Policy—especially regarding funding and
complicated research — it’s… complicated 😜
No worries if you forget some of the
above! I’ll point out how these solutions fix them.
Existing Solution 2A: Organise CCUS
infrastructure in one place
So here’s the issue for the FOURTH time… we
only have 26 commercial CCUS
locations in the world in 2020. 😁 See if you can notice a pattern about them:
All operational CCUS facilities are located in different
places. Even the dots that seem close together (ex: the cluster in the US) are located in
different states, cities, etc.
This means that most companies had to build their CCUS plants entirely from
scratch. Ie. build pipes for transporting CO2, dig wells for injecting CO2, build units for
capturing CO2 and so on. On top of that, they had to find their own ways of recruiting
highly-specialised employees, getting access to
highly-specialised equipment, getting funding for highly-specialised purposes, and… you get the idea.
Companies trying to build CCUS plants often
can’t rely on existing infrastructure. When they do, it’s because companies might set up one-on-one partnerships. Ex.
the CO2, I’ll inject it underground, and we’ll split the cost of transporting it.” But this is risky — if one company fails, all others
The current CCUS industry with its limited
locations and building-from-scratch is like the Internet industry before the 2000s. Each company would
have to buy expensive equipment like servers, hire specialised talent like developers,
and so on. This meant it cost millions to start an Internet company back then!
Of course, these days, no ecommerce
company is building equipment like servers by itself. Some quaint, tiny company takes care of servers, another takes care of
building the website, another takes care of customer support, and so on. By having each company focus on just one piece of
at scale, costs fell by 1000x! 🎉 Now, anyone with wifi can go on a crowdfunding platform and
start an ecommerce business.
This is what the CCUS industry is hoping to
replicate: increasing economies of scale and splitting
the risk of projects. They do this by
multiple companies in one ‘CCUS hub’.
For example, take the Porthos project in
development in the Netherlands.
It aims to develop carbon capture, transportation, and storage infrastructure at the Port of Rotterdam, the
largest port in Europe. Then, thousands of shipping companies could pay for carbon offsets for their
operations, but not need
to build the infrastructure to do it from scratch! 💪
Still, there are two big limitations here:
These CCUS hubs will take years to build. At least
2024 for Porthos.
Though one organisation doesn’t have to
pay for all phases of a CCUS hub (capture, transportation, and storage), each one STILL has to pay
tens of millions of dollars.And
so far, it’s governments who take the bill.
I’m no political expert, so a quick Google
Search will get you more informed
But I do know this — the more people you force to pay, the less likely the regulation is to pass 😁
BUT, there are a few innovative carbon
pricing ideas out there! For one, take the US 45Q tax credit.
of imposing a carbon tax or a carbon permit on all companies / consumers, it offers a tax reduction to those that DO go out of their way
reduce emissions. Ie. Instead of trying to get the laggards (massive industries) to change,
you just get support to the innovators (CCUS startups) first. Get what you can when you can ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Another approach to force fewer people to
is for cities to create their own carbon
pricing. Then, fewer total residents/companies will be affected. But cities make up 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, so the
pricing still affects
the majority of CO2 production. Examples of cities that have done
include Quebec, Shanghai, and Tokyo.
It’s like we stop cutting the weakest parts
the tree branch because it’s more feasible than changing our branch-cutting ways on the whole.
2. Remember the hot potato game of which
government agency should regulate carbon storage projects?
Yeah, it still has no solution 😁 But
researchers proposed an
innovative, new idea!
Have one agency instead of 21…
But to their credit, the researchers
did propose a low-friction way of deploying this! Basically, create a liaison agency that coordinates between CCUS plant
developers and all the other government agencies. Ie. Shift the burden of figuring it out
to that middleman… middleagency?
3. For products created with CO2 (carbon
utilisation), there are a LOT of issues with financing, getting regulatory approval to sell products,
etc. BUT, it doesn’t matter if you fix all problems
a CO2-based product if no one wants to buy it. 😭
That’s why governments are creating public procurement
guidelines and some companies are creating future purchase agreements to buy CO2-based products when they’re
ready. Still, the government guidelines are mostly optional + small-scale (ex: at municipal levels).
And companies with future purchase agreements are the exception, not the norm.
It’s like we’re putting up optional guidance
signs on the branch:
4. Remember how carbon storage
companies have a lot of uncertainty because they could potentially face fines forever? As if they had
ghosts haunting them?
So the Australians came up with
an innovative, new solution to this problem…
Don’t fine companies for all eternity! 😁
Specifically, storage companies transfer responsibility for cleaning up
CO2 leaks to the government — 15 years after a site closes. This is because the risk of CO2 leaking is
greatest during operation and immediately declines after the site
is closed (pg.
Now, the Europeans and Albertans have replicated
the laws in Australia. Good on them! But that’s enough about governments… and on to the research!
Existing Solution C: Jumble of complex CO2
utilisation research 😮
Buckle in… this is going
to be a wild ride (but complex research is
part of the existing solutions!) Almost there!
Carbon utilisation is by far the most active area for
CCUS research. Here are four popular topics right now:
1. CO2-based concrete products are ALMOST a commercial
success. These products
inject CO2 into concrete (where it reacts with elements like Calcium to create rocks). Or, they might
use CO2 to coat around the concrete
with the same Calcium reaction. In either case, the good thing about CO2 → rocks is that rocks tend to
stay out of the atmosphere 😁
I know what you’re thinking… so what’s
the catch? 😕
Here are a few issues with CO2-based
High standards— concrete is used in buildings, bridges, and beyond.
need to pass REALLY stringent safety standards to sell a new concrete mix. Multiple experts have told me about tests that
take months, especially for durability testing.
And even after a new concrete is certified,
industry contracts may still bar
Regulations, regulations, regulations 😫—
because of the high-safety applications for concrete, there are slow-to-change
regulations on what materials concrete can use. This makes it hard
to change concrete production in general. Ex: even without CO2, you could make concrete
more sustainable with more limestone and less cement (both are just ‘ingredients’). But this new
technique is still illegal in many
And even after all the red tape,
new concrete factories cost billions of dollars to
build. 😶 Even a single ‘green kiln’ (modern +
sustainable factory equipment to reduce emissions) costs $100 million!
🔑: CO2-based concrete can
store CO2 as rocks for hundreds of
years. But, it’s the new kid in a heavily-regulated town full of bouncers :/
2. Using CO2 to make fuels is at its pilot
stage.The way it works is
actually standard high school chemistry (horrific
flashback warning 😱).
Fuels are hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are
called hydrocarbons because they have hydrogen and carbon :-)
CO2 has carbon, but not hydrogen. So if
you add hydrogen to CO2, then you can get hydrocarbons (fuels).
Theoretically simple, right? And fuels don’t
have to last for centuries (unlike CO2-based concretes) so testing and safety regulations can be
It’s kind of like you’re trying to
help the tree branch by dulling the blades of the saw. But you’re not really stopping the crazy humans
sawing away faster and faster each year 🤔
3. CO2 to grow food is at the very early pilot stage.
Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Uhhhh,
hello? What about plants???”
Yes, using CO2 to grow plants gets us
food. 🌴 But plants use a lot of land, use a lot of
slowly, and leave non-edible materials besides food. We want: “CO2 in, wait one week
maximum, and get ONE food product as output.” I actually only know of three companies working on this.
I wish I could tell you what the
upsides/downsides of this technology are, but it’s just SO early stage that there isn’t enough
research about it out there. 😕This is actually part of a big list of CCUS technologies where SO much
more REPLICABLE research is needed…
🔑: There isn’t enough
research to tell if CO2 utilisation for food production is feasible. Other big words with little
research: biochar, mangroves, enhanced weathering, and ocean-based carbon dioxide removal (details)
Existing Solution D: Jumble of complex
monitoring research 😮
Last, last existing
solution! I promise 😁
This one’s all about monitoring.
And by monitoring, I mean measuring how you do X instead of just doing X. Monitoring is especially important for verifying CO2 is
And it’s hardest when this capture and storage happens over a large
geographic area. (Ex: It’s hard to monitor a forest capturing CO2 vs. a capture unit at a
power plant.) The reason for this is intuitive: it’s hard to install a sensor on every tree in a
forest to measure how much CO2 it captures.
Versus installing one sensor on a carbon capture unit in a factory smokestack.
Here are two approaches to fix this issue:
1. Remote forest monitoring is unlocking more possibilities
ever where it works! Basically, remote monitoring skips installing local sensors or having
local workers check in on the health of individual trees. Instead, it uses satellite imaging data to
monitor CO2 capture, forest growth,
forest canopy density, and so on.
But you guessed it! There’s a catch…
Remote monitoring data isn’t available in many parts of the
world. Especially for datatypes like LiDAR that are expensive to collect— in fact, the largest forestry
databases don’t have ANY LiDAR data on Brazil: home to the largest forest on Earth. 😕
But that’s not all…
Carbon capture monitoring processes have to
be approved by either governments or ‘carbon offset market
registries’. (People who let companies capture X tonnes of CO2 for $Y). BUT, carbon registries are global and only approve monitoring
processes that work for ALL types of forest (188.8.131.52)
If there’s no data for a certain forest
type in a certain location, you can’t create remote monitoring techniques for that forest.
If a technique doesn’t work for all
forests, that technique won’t be accepted by formal carbon registries.
If that technique won’t be part of
registries, these monitoring techniques have much lower adoption.
Still, maybe individual governments might
decide to use these techniques via their own national laws? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
🔑: To scale, monitoring
techniques must be standardised. To be standardised, they must work everywhere. A single inconvenient
geographic location can mess that up.
It’s like we have an amazing guard
dog that could alert us to any branch-sawing baddies! But we can’t use it because we don’t know if it
can smell that one bit of bark on the end of the branch 😭
2. Carbon storage monitoring is reducing manual tests that take
long time to run. It looks at a few key datapoints:
Data about the underground well. For
example, the temperature or pressure at the bottom of the well.
Data about the CO2 in the underground
well. Like monitoring if any CO2 is escaping from cracks in underground rock.
Both these types of data are hard to
collect. To measure data at the bottom of a well, you have to put sensors hundreds of metres
underground. As you can imagine, this is costly and hard to maintain. 😕 And monitoring CO2 already
stored underground means we need to see through underground rock.
How do you see through rock? You don’t… you
listen! Basically, you create acoustic vibrations that go through underground rock. These are created
by slamming a big ram into the ground a bunch of times 😁
I know… it sounds like a fun job!
But in reality, it’s pretty boring.
Just a bunch of paperwork to get permission to buy expensive equipment. 😭 That’s why researchers are
working on simplifying this process a lot! One of the biggest improvements is just
permanently putting acoustic vibration-sensors
underground. That way, they can be reused instead of getting a big smashy ram to slam the
ground every time you want to
run a test 😂
Here’s a video with helpful visuals:
Researchers claim approaches like these
can be up to 75% cheaper than traditional carbon
monitoring! Still, this doesn’t address the largest costs of carbon storage (insurance
costs and safety deposits).
Good job! You made it! 😌 I’ll stop with the existing solutions here. (Though
you KNOW there are more out there that I’m cutting A) for time and B) because they involve intolerable
levels of chemistry 😂)
Section 3: Some Neglected Opportunities 😍
This section is basically
me wrapping up by shooting out ENTIRELY-UNTESTED
ideas for future problem-solvers who want to get involved with CCUS 😉😀
The goal here is mainly to make it
easier to start more CCUS projects. I’ll talk about how to do that with better financing, regulations,
Opportunity A: Better Government Funding
Let’s start with a no-brainer solution: more government money 😁 Ie.
Higher carbon prices for companies.
But wait! There’s more…
Why not make carbon pricing smarter? Instead
of just asking the government to spend more money, what are
the right places for the government to spend more money? That will incentivise more
companies to work on the RIGHT areas of carbon capture.
This is like making it rain in every
direction vs. signing a targeted check 😁
Here are some ideas:
1. Increased carbon pricing for lower technology readiness
levels (TRL). TRLs are just
a scale of how ‘ready’ a technology is to be commercialised. The highest level is 10 (the technology
is a commercial success) and the lowest
level is 1 (you just have the first research papers on the technology).
But why pay more for less ready technology
(lower TRLs)? Because ready-to-commercialise industries can usually get private funding easily. So
instead, the government usually helps those who
need it most. It can have the greatest impact on the least ready technology.
2. Increased carbon pricing for more permanent capture
options. Right now, almost all governments around the world will price carbon the same
whether it’s sucked up by a tree or pumped underground or injected into concrete.
But this doesn’t make sense. Carbon sucked
up by trees will be released back into the atmosphere in decades. Centuries for concrete injection.
And millennia for geologic sequestration. (Table 1) Why pay the
same price for solutions that are 100x less permanent? 😕
Would you pay a plumber full price if your
sink broke again in 2 weeks?
3. Increased pricing for atmospheric CO2. That is, the 0.04% of air that is
CO2 vs. the 10+% of a factory smokestack’s emissions that is CO2. The lower concentration of the
former makes it much more
which is why increased pricing is needed.
Also, collecting CO2 already in the
atmosphere is like ✨ fixing past emissions ✨— something no other green technology can do. So we should
incentivise more companies to work on this specialty. Still, there are lots of troublesome nuances with this.
🔑: Pay more for past CO2
emissions removed from the atmosphere, technologies that need the help, and longer-term solutions.
This is like paying more for
super-fantabulous wood glue that can fix centuries of people sawing away at the branch. Right now,
we’re paying the same price for the glue and a pinch of sawdust to fill one crack. 😕
Opportunity B: Better Government
It really pays to be visual here. So here
are the existing permitting processes for carbon storage projects.
Not so great. The proposed existing
solution is to put in a middle agency as a liaison between CCUS companies and the mess in Option A.
This is the government equivalent of
sweeping the dirt under the rug before mom arrives. 😂 So I propose an alternative solution:
Have standardised risk levels for different CCUS
projects. Ie. If one carbon capture site has risks factors A, B, and C then it gets risk
class 1. And the CCUS company can get a predefined permit for that risk level.
Every project has a basic risk level (ex: level
1). Then, any other risks will be evaluated on a project-by-project basis.
The benefits of this are that CCUS
companies better know which permits they might need and can plan accordingly. And, government agencies
know who gets involved on what at each risk level.
Each CCUS company has its own path to
travel. Just like an airport counter:
If you think about it, managing who
saves which part of the branch really is like directing air traffic going every which way 😅
Opportunity C: Unlocking Flexible
Quick reminder: current
financing for CCUS projects is mainly government grants or oil and gas money. Both of those have
downsides. Debt would be better, though it has high interest rates. And there aren’t any current
to that problem 😱
That’s why I took inspiration from innovations in green finance for other clean
technologies. Here are some ‘green finance principles’ that might help:
1. Make debt less risky to lower interest rates.
I know what you’re thinking… “Easier said
than done!” 😁
But hear me out. Many of the risks that raise interest rates for CCUS
are region-specific (Table 1). For example,
political risk, social acceptance, storage liability risk, legal risk, etc.
So if you give a loan to a CCUS company in
one location, any number of things could go wrong at that location. This makes debt interest higher.
So that got me thinking: “What if we could give loans to CCUS companies across MANY
locations?” 🌎 That would make sure that all the companies don’t suffer from the same
region-specific risks. So if one CCUS company goes bankrupt because of poor policies in a country, all
others won’t follow suit the next morning.
It’s exactly like social distancing to
reduce risk 😂
On top of this, banks lending money can start with smaller loans that lead
cost savings and prove creditworthiness. Ex: Instead of funding the construction of a whole
carbon storage site, you fund the new and improved monitoring technologies in Section 2 and get 75% cost savings for the project. If the storage company pays you
back, you’re more willing to
lend them more money in the future. And they’re more profitable from the cost savings! 🤑
🔑: To lower interest
rates, lower risk. To lower risk, lend in different regions and start with microloans for cost-saving
If that’s too much financial mumbo
jumbo, it’s like video game level ups. First, we give individuals tools so they can collect more
resources. Then, we clone those individuals to make villages and get even more resources! 💪
2. Create long-term revenue for CCUS companies to reduce
uncertainty. Again, think about risks like political change for CCUS companies. they can’t
make great long-term decisions. 😕
Regions with carbon permits always
have variable carbon pricing (variable revenue for CCUS companies) anyway.
Nature-based solutions (ex: reforestation) involve
seasonal demand outside the tropics. Ex: A nursery growing trees for reforestation will
only get customers during the spring. So it’s hard to make long-term plans over years.
These problems already exist for most
agricultural products. Trees are trees, whether you grow them for carbon offsets or farms. Predicting
how much money you’ll get, when, and from where is like playing whack-a-mole 😭
Luckily, because these problems already
exist in the agricultural industry, people have also already thought of solutions:
One option is to combine individual short-term contracts into one long-term
contract. 🤔 Currently, many companies will individually buy carbon offsets or trees for
reforestation. But they rarely support one CCUS company with these purchases over years.
So, you get all the companies to send the
money to an intermediary. And the intermediary uses the money to create one long-term contract. Then,
the intermediary will pay the CCUS company and send the carbon offsets/trees back to
Too many boring words? 😁 Here’s a picture:
Another way to create similar long-term
contracts would be to have a ‘futures’ market for
commodities like reforest-able tree seedlings 😁 A ‘futures’ market just means that people
buy contracts that say: “A producer will deliver the goods to you in a month.” Versus a ‘spot’ market
where people buy the goods on the
Futures markets have been created for carbon permits and carbon offsets but not
for tree seedlings that can be planted during reforestation.
🔑: More future revenue
guarantees = more certainty = more long-term investment
It’s like funding tree branch
protection squads for a decade vs. a year. They can launch more state-of-the-art
branch-protection-systems in a decade!
3. Break down CCUS infrastructure financing into phases.
This is standard with infrastructure construction. Instead of loaning a CCUS company tens of
millions of dollars, you give the money in parts based
the company’s progress. (Ex: finishing initial design plans, acquiring permits, etc.)
It’s like every growth milestone unlocks
On top of this, companies can have different funders for different phases of a CCUS
This splits up the risk between funders and leads to lower interest rates.
For example, a bank might finance give a
CCUS company a loan to build a pipeline. After it’s built, ‘institutional’ investors (big sources of
money like a pension fund) may pay back the bank loan on behalf of the company. In exchange,
they get equity (a share of profits).
So, the bank takes the risk of not getting
their money back in case construction fails. And the institutional investors take the risk of not
getting their money back in case the CCUS company’s operations aren’t profitable. But
neither takes on both risks, so both offer lower interest rates 🧠
🔑: Less money upfront +
more funders = less risk = lower interest rates
It’s like shooting a massive cannon
ball of money at the problem vs. shooting dollar bills in every which direction 😁
Phew… all done with
the money! Here’s one last creative idea in case all that bored you 😅
Opportunity D: Accessibil-ify data for
CCUS companies 😉
Specifically, there are two metrics that are important, but hard to access: where to
locate your CCUS site and how to monitor carbon capture.
1. Where you locate your site is important
because it determines everything from government support to legal requirements to partnership
opportunities to energy costs and more… 😮 And finding good locations amidst all these metrics
is a long, complicated process. For carbon storage projects, it can take years just to screen lots of
sites and then select one final location!
I think many parts of this process can be
open-sourced… if there were some incentive for people to do this work for free. For example, searching
for data sources in regions of interest can be split up among many people. Or, researching
regional CCUS policies / partnership opportunities can be split up among many people. But what about
the doing work for free part? 🤔
🔑: Open-source CCUS data
isn’t scalable due to limited incentives to contribute.
Why not use history’s favourite
incentivisation strategy: sacrifice young people and students!?!? ✨
Companies in carbon capture have a lot of media
attention right now. They could easily create publicity for hackathons for geological and engineering students.
Especially in partnership with each other. Prompts could be to
identify CCUS site locations / market demand
for different CCUS approaches.
Yes, student recommendations aren’t perfect.
But each one can uncover little bits of the puzzle that save time later. Incentives for students could be prizes and adding work
experience to their portfolio doing the exact same grunt-work that junior hires would do.
Companies could even recruit from that pool of students! 🎉
It’s like multiple people are filling in
pieces of the map.
2. Remote carbon capture monitoring
technologies face an uphill battle: they need to work EVERYwhere to be standardised. 😩 That’s bound
to cause MANY different problems with getting ALL the data needed to test monitoring approaches
everywhere. Two approaches currently try to fix these data gaps:
Open-source data usually focuses on easy-to-monitor locations, so
it can’t address the most extreme data gaps (ex: in remote parts of developing
So a company that is making better carbon
capture monitoring will have to coordinate between these sources, as well as governments and
researchers. They have to do a lot of heavy digging to collect pieces of the puzzle so they
can eventually make the solution.
🔑: We need both
open-source and commercial data to standardise monitoring. But it’s hard for companies to coordinate
between all these sources.
It makes more sense for carbon
capture monitoring companies to develop their technology, while someone else specialises in data acquisition. They could be
via a bounty. 🤑
Currently, companies say: “We’ll give you $X
thousand to map this specific region.” Instead, a company could specify the whole package of data they
need. Some of this data could be available on open-source platforms. Other parts
might need to be collected for the first time with commercial platforms. But the company offloads data acquisition to someone else so
can do their main job.
But let’s say a monitoring company needs 10
pieces of data, but almost all of them need to be commercially collected. And the bounty prize doesn’t
justify someone else hiring commercial companies to collect the data. The bounty
could be increased over time to incentivise more people to try and find the data. Or, they might get
partial rewards for collecting parts of the data that are available.
Again, these are all opportunities that anyone (YOU) could take on
RIGHT NOW! They’ve never been done before, but I hope sharing them will get more heads
thinking. Not in imaginary-land, but based on the problems and existing solutions I outlined here 😉
And maybe, just maybe…
We can #SaveTheBranchTogether and #AvoidFallingIntoAnExpansiveVoidOf
Section 4: YOU MADE IT TO THE END!
After the past 50 minutes of CCUS and
existential branches and hot potato permitting processes, you’re free! 😤
You’ve got to admit though, this was more engaging than the
400-page reports that the CCUS industry usually puts out 😂
As a last gift, I’ll leave you with this
concise summary list. And my Linkedin profile if you want me to personally answer any
questions you have 😉
Carbon capture is the ONLY technology
that can remove past CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.
There are a LOT of research gaps with
CCUS approaches: biochar, enhanced weathering, food production, and ocean-based carbon dioxide
To scale, monitoring techniques must be
standardised. To be standardised, they must work everywhere.
Carbon pricing can be targeted more
towards the RIGHT technologies.
Risk evaluation for CCUS project
permitting could be much faster if standardised. Currently, we have project-by-project negotiations.
Debt for CCUS projects can be derisked
via smaller loans across many geographies.
Short-term contracts for CCUS
prevent them from making long-term investments.
Open-source CCUS data is limited since
there aren’t any incentives to contribute. But non-monetary incentives can easily be created (ex:
hackathons, portfolio building, employee recruitment).
🙏 THANK YOU to 🙏
Jesse Pound for being
my fellow solutioneer through every early morning braindump of my CCUS thoughts 😂 And for supporting
me through this entire journey, even when you didn’t have anything left to give.
Betty Cremmins from WEFORUM for sharing resources
on reforestation that I NEVER would have found on my own. 🤓 And for revising this whole thing in such
Professor Pete Smith
from the University of Aberdeen for being the first person who was willing to spare time to help
random high school student 😄 And for all the ALL CAPS FEEDBACK after that 😉
Eve Tamme from the
Global CCS Institute for your kindness in giving back to students, for explaining the priorities of
environmental policymakers, and for getting me hooked on learning to negotiate 😅
Dr. Matthew Bright
the Global CCS Institute
for telling me about your on-the-ground lessons with outreach and communications in the CCUS
and for letting me in on your experimental ideas 😉
Dr. Chistopher Consoli
from the Global CCS Institute for taking the time to share your to-the-point lessons on carbon
Dr. Eugene Holubnyak
from Kansas Geological Survey for all your enthusiasm and encouragement for students! 🎉And for
explaining the exact details of carbon storage permitting to me.
William Payne from
Corp for taking me seriously and going out of your way to support students during the tough times of
the pandemic 🙏 I appreciate your expertise on the ins and outs of geology in CCUS!
Tim Bushman from
Direct for talking to me about the issues companies face in buying carbon offsets. 😩
Russell Dyk from
Direct for listening
to an unprepared high school student pitch financial derisking models 😁 And still taking it
and giving useful feedback!
Dr. Joseph King from
ARPA-E for sharing your innovative ideas in CO2 utilisation for concrete! 🤓 (And sharing it
on the side amidst all your amazing career advice 😁)
Lee Levkowitz from BHP
for talking to me about the issues with decarbonisation in the mining industry. 😮
Devin Patten from
Technologies for walking me through the YEARS of history at Solidia and what exciting milestones are
Dr. Paul Majzstrik
Solidia Technologies for emailing me about the barriers holding back sustainable concrete.
Dr. Hai Yu from CSIRO
for your pages and pages of clarifications in helping me understand the sorbent research process! 💪
Dr. Ronald Chance from
Global Thermostat for your
pages and pages of reality-checks about what is and isn’t possible in the CCUS industry. 🤔 It takes
lot of honesty to say the things most people will overlook!
David Bochner from
for emailing me about the cutting edge issues in the next generation of remote reforestation
Eric Dunford from
CarbonCure for emailing me resources about the state of policy issues in the sustainable concrete
Dr. Truong Nguyen from Cemvita Factories
for emailing me about what’s holding back bio-based R&D in CCUS 🧬
Dr. Nymul Khan from
Cemvita Factories for emailing
me about the economics behind bio-based research in CCUS 💰
from CSIRO for emailing me about the cutting-edge research with geologic modelling in carbon storage
Dr. Paul Feron from
CSIRO for emailing me about the priorities in setting standards for the CCUS industry!
Dr. Linda Broadhurst
CSIRO for your amazing research on barriers in scaling up reforestation! And for clarifying its
details with me 🙂
Alyssa Barrett from
Global Forest Watch for emailing me about your incredible approaches to set your organisation’s
Dr. James Hall from
Carbon Clean for emailing me about your unique work to make carbon capture easier to deploy.
Dr. Omid Ghaffari from
Svante for messaging me about the areas for improvement to better support R&D in CCUS!
from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for emailing me suggestions on issues with CCUS public
Nan Ransohoff from
Climate for sharing the amazing work at Stripe Demo Day! Stripe is definitely a jewel amidst too
coals in CCUS ✨
This work wouldn’t have been
possible without these people helping me out for no reason other than the kindness of their hearts ❤️